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.

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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!


Not a real review: Fable Anniversary (Xbox 360)

Fable Anniversary

Fable Anniversary (Lionhead Studios) – beautiful, but buggy.

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I was ecstatic when Lionhead Studios announced Fable Anniversary last June. The original Fable – the game that sparked my interest in video games (beyond racing, sports, etc.) as an adult – turns ten years old this year, and remains one of my favorites. A long-hoped-for, remastered-for-HD version of my favorite Xbox game, originally expected to release less than five months after its announcement? I was 100% there.

Of course, it was pushed back to February, ostensibly so that Lionhead could add some final polish and make it the great remake that it deserved to be – and that its fans deserved, and craved.

I picked the game up on its release date (February 4), but I didn’t get around to starting it for a couple of days. Since then, I have put approximately 25 hours into it over the course of a half-dozen play sessions. I’ve spent my time in-game savoring the HD graphics, basking in the soundtrack, and exploring every nook and cranny of Albion. It’s wonderful to see the original Fable in its updated glory. The adventure can be completed in a relatively short amount of time, but I’ve been taking my sweet, sweet time, and I have no regrets about doing so.

The not-real review:

Graphically, Fable Anniversary is a pleasure, although this is expected: in the Xbox 360 era, we’ve already had Fable II and Fable III, which both look bright and colorful; Anniversary feels right at home when compared to those two.

The gameplay is faithful to the original, with the added option of using the Fable II controls. Personally, it’s a pleasure to play a 360-quality Fable game with the map on-screen again, and while the menu interface design has been updated, it still feels like old times, in a good way.

I won’t go into detail about every aspect of the game. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying myself, and I’m sure most fans of the original game would have a lot of fun revisiting Albion in Anniversary. Plus, this is not a real review.

However, I will note a handful of troubling issues with the game.

1. The original game’s “trade between shops for gold” “bug” – where a player can buy out a vendor, instantly increase that same vendor’s demand (and buy price) for items, and then resell those items back to the vendor for a profit, instantly re-lowering that vendor’s demand (and sell price), ad infinitum – made it into the remastered game intact.

It’s fairly obvious that Lionhead isn’t terribly concerned with the ease of gold-making in the series. After all, Fable II and III both had fairly simple, repetitive job systems that made gold-making a mindless afterthought after players put in a little bit of initial work. However, I would argue that this a broken system that needed to be fixed. They did fix it to some extent in Fable II, which had a much better “sale” system, but in remaining faithful to the original in this case, they trivialized several other systems. For instance, with basically unlimited gold, the use of Health/Will potions and Resurrection Phials goes from somewhat strategic (in the first hour or two of play) to completely trivial: when you’re sitting on 500+ Health/Will potions, you can use them like candy and it’s not challenging. Additionally, getting very good armor and weapons becomes simply a matter of opening up new areas (and thus, new vendors), with little-to-no real cost. And getting the “Choosing My Religion” achievement for donating at least 100,000 gold at the Temple of Avo (which also rewards a very strong melee weapon) is a drop in the bucket. There is no real choice necessary there (unless you deliberately choose not to make gold that way); instead of making choices have consequence, you simply buy what you need – even an achievement – while suffering virtually no effect on your overall gold balance.

2. The game freezes way too often, which is a problem. It’s happened to me more times than I’ve cared to count. On Sunday, for instance, I played for just over two hours and had to shut off/restart my 360 three times. The first time it happened was early on in the game, when I was halfway through the “Twinblade’s Camp” core quest. I was mollified when I realized that I could load from the latest checkpoint, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I’ve had to hard-restart my 360 almost 20 times with Fable Anniversary, and even though Lionhead came out with a stability update a few weeks after release, I’m still having many of the same problems.

3. There are some annoying jagged edges in the game. The one that has annoyed me the most – probably because I’ve used it so many times – has been a problem where, if I run straight into a cullis gate (usually at the Heroes Guild), I can’t actually get onto it. I have to approach it in a semi-circular manner in order to avoid the jag, which is just a pain. There are some other ground jags, but nothing that has been as consistently frustrating as the cullis gate issue. Fortunately, we have the Guild Seal, and I’ve taken to using it almost exclusively for teleportation.

4. On that note, I’ve also noticed some instances where, when attempting to use the down button on the d-pad (Guild Seal) to teleport, the game instead reflects that I’ve used either the right or left d-pad buttons, which means I use some type of expression (usually a fart, which I guess is hilarious in its own way), eat something I didn’t want to eat, or something to that effect. At certain points, that has been frustrating, particularly at times when I was some distance from the nearest cullis gate. Since the update, this seems to have toned down, although I don’t know if that’s just a coincidence.

There are other gameplay elements that aren’t the cleanest, but these bugs are the ones that have bothered me the most, because they’re particularly immersion-breaking and because I would think that, aside from #1, Lionhead would have been able to smooth out the game’s rough edges (bugs) with the extra time afforded them by the delay.

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In general, I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun playing Fable Anniversary. It’s been great to revisit the old stories, places, music, and choices. I’ve laughed a lot, and enjoyed the coziness of the game. At the same time, I’ve found myself getting chills during certain quests, even though I’ve done them before: the quest sequences where you a) find out Lady Grey’s secret at Grey House and b) fight through the graveyard on the way to Bargate Prison were, in particular, very cool combinations of atmosphere, music, and spooky situations.

Looking back at the original through this fresh experience, it’s easier to see how Lionhead took some big leaps forward from Fable to Fable II, with jobs, the vendor sale system, combat system, expanded pub games, and the social/Renown/relationship overhauls. While I still sort of want to look back on my experiences with the original and tell people that the first Fable was the best game in the series – and I do think that it’s still my favorite – I have a much greater appreciation for the changes in game mechanics that Lionhead made in the second game now. Fable Anniversary is great, and it’s a loving tribute to the original classic, but it also shows both its age and its limitations when compared to its newer brethren. As such, it generally deserves its decent-but-not-smokin’-hot review scores.

I would definitely recommend Fable Anniversary to fans of the original Fable, as well as fans of Fable II and III who haven’t played the original, if for nothing other than to experience the original story. Albion is rich with lore, and for those who never played it on Xbox (or never owned an Xbox), this is a wonderful opportunity to visit that era in its history.

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My experience with Fable Anniversary:

  • Previous Fable experience: played the original several times. Also played II several times, and III once.
  • General game thoughts: beautiful – and still a lot of fun – but also a bit buggy, and shows its age.
  • Graphics: not cutting-edge anymore, but generally on par with other 360 Fable entries.
  • System/game performance: generally consistent with the original, and very playable, but – again – has some unfortunately frustrating bugs.
  • Music: excellent, as usual – a game soundtrack worth buying.
  • Xbox Smartglass: I didn’t test the Smartglass features. Additionally, I didn’t feel like spending extra money for the premium features, and they aren’t totally necessary anyway (although from what I’ve read, they’re pretty cool).

Note: Not a real review is a new series here at Dischordant Forms, where I write about my experiences playing through various video games – usually older games that I can get at bargain bin prices (although this game is something of an exception in that regard). These posts should not be considered actual reviews, which are usually written by people who are both competent gamers and decent writers. These are simply my impressions, and the context in which those are formed may be vastly different from that of most other players/readers.

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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.

* * *

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


“This thing between me and my notebook”

The notebook

For several days, the single-subject, college-ruled notebook that I bought back in September has been whispering my name. I bought it at Target before a trip to visit my parents, wrote in it a few times while I was there, and brought it back with me. Since then, it has been neglected; covered by an increasingly precarious stack of CDs.

For a while, I didn’t even know where it was, but at some point along the way it revealed itself to me, and started catching my eye. From time to time, I would return its stare for a moment, but I generally ignored its attempts at attention.

I don’t have anything against that notebook. However, it was buried under a bunch of CDs, and it was something that I would have to leave my chair to retrieve. I didn’t feel like getting up, or moving all of those the CDs.

After a while, I began to wonder why I didn’t just get up and get it. It began to be a “thing” between myself and this notebook. It wanted me to uncover it, open it, write in it. I resisted the urge for a while… but for what reason? The contents therein will never be published, nobody will see it. Nobody cares what I write in it. So why was this such a difficult thing for me?

I think the answers to this question are many, but the two main ones that come to mind are 1) some embarrassment about – and frustration with – my own penmanship and 2) my misplaced belief that most of what I write will be of no consequence.

These aren’t rational ideas to cling to, but they’re a part of my personality, and always have been.

Penmanship

My mom has beautiful penmanship. I’ve always admired her handwriting, which is easy to read and very consistent. None of my siblings can write as neatly as she does, but I’ve seen her sisters’ handwriting in greeting cards, and one or two of them have a similar quality and style. I’ve always wished that I could write like they do, but I simply can’t.

My handwriting is not pure cursive, but a combination of cursive and single letters. I mix cursive letters with certain printed letters, such as ‘k’ and ‘b’ at the beginnings of words, and capital letters like ‘Q’ and ‘L’ and ‘I’ (among others). However, sometimes I use a cursive capital ‘I,’ although I tend to try to avoid doing so, because my upper-case ‘I’ ends up looking like a lower-case cursive ‘L.’ I’ve never been truly consistent; I think that what I use depends on my mood and the situation.

Regardless, if I sit down to write – a letter, for instance, or a journal entry – I can start out with decent penmanship, but that has a tendency to disintegrate into slurred words as my hand struggles with the task of keeping up with my brain. Of course, when I go back later to read what I wrote, I find myself faced with the prospect of figuring out which words and sentences I had intended to write, but which came out as mostly illegible waste. This has been discouraging for me, and in these instances I’ve generally tended to retreat back to the comfort of typing.

And the notebook has fallen by the wayside for an indefinite period of time, again and again.

Journal content

As for the issue of content… this may sound stupid, but I feel as if there is a significant portion of my brain that has no idea how to journal. I have all these hangups about whether I’m journaling properly, whether what I’m writing is boring or pathetic, how it looks when I correct a mistake, and how much more difficult it is to write clearly and fluidly by hand when you’re a) out of practice and b) used to the instant-edit lifestyle that is blogging (and typing in general).

Looking at that last paragraph, these ideas seem mostly irrational. Regardless, they’re real hangups that I’ve always struggled with. Fortunately, they haven’t managed to permanently kill my desire to journal: it lies in wait, in some part of my brain, waiting for me to feel that itch again.

Getting back into it

On Thursday night at 11:55pm, after several staredowns between this notebook and me, I relented. I stood up, extracted the notebook from beneath the stack of CDs and whatnot, and covered the front and back of a page with my increasingly erratic handwriting. I wrote about my struggles with journaling and penmanship, and made note of some things that I can do to improve my experience, such as making some writing space for myself. I have this slight hope that writing more frequently will result in better handwriting quality if I make that a priority.

I used to write a lot of letters. In the age of blogs and email and mobile phones and social media, the letter is a somewhat rare and ancient phenomenon, and I’m amazed when I think about how often I used to churn out pages upon pages worth of letters every month, and how long ago it was that I stopped doing that regularly. But the letter doesn’t have to die out, and neither does the journal. There are millions of people who still journal and/or write letters, and that includes my mother*, so I’m not revolutionizing anything by doing this, other than a part of my own lifestyle. I just know that, over the past several years, my habits have changed with technology, for better or for worse**.

*By the way, her handwriting is still consistently high-quality. I find her ability to journal and to write so well and so consistently to be inspirational, and am glad to have that inspiration in my life.

**Blogging has been a major “for better” part of this equation, of course.

Closing

This notebook is, as I said at the top, a single subject notebook. It has 70 pages, several of which are already used. But that’s okay. As I contemplated my inner desire to get more involved in hand-writing on a more regular basis, I made plans to buy a larger notebook. However, I’ve decided not to waste this one. If I can fill the remaining 60-odd pages in this notebook, I will buy myself another one, along with a better pen. Those will be my material rewards for doing something that is almost certain to have, more importantly, mental and spiritual benefits.

It’s a good time to start – or revive – a good habit or two. Hopefully, I can make this one of them.

* * *

Thanks for reading this post. In addition to the internal “urge to write” and the external “notebook staring me down” influences, this post was inspired in part by the following article:

Snapshots from the writing desk by Andrea Badgley at Butterfly Mind… a great post by a great blogger! Thanks Andrea.

* * *

Posted by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Chasing all that is new

I was going through some backlogged articles recently on NPR’s All Songs Considered when I came across this one, entitled The Good Listener: Is There Too Much Music? by Stephen Thompson. In it, a reader/listener asks:

How much is too much? I am a firm believer in quality over quantity, but I lose sleep at night fearing that I’m going to miss something. But am I really missing something bigger by not spending more time with less music?”

The gist of that question resonates with me because I used to be the person who routinely gobbled up bag-fulls of new music in the never-ending search for that next song or album that blows the mind. During the second half of the last decade, however, the frequency with which I purchased new albums generally declined – and over the past few years, what had slowed to a trickle has basically come to a halt.

* * *

My current hiatus from buying new music is largely due to lack of financial wherewithal. I was unemployed for a while (but have been back on the job for well over a year, thankfully), and as such, close to 100% of the music I’ve bought since then has been via iTunes, using credit that I had from some gift cards. Of course, I’ve been able to check out tracks on YouTube and other streaming services from time to time, but the last physical CD I picked up was Megadeth’s Endgame, and the last full album I “purchased” on iTunes was Lulu, which is unfortunate in some ways…

That doesn’t mean that I’ve been completely oblivious to new music. However, my attention to new sounds definitely waned as the money for new music dried up. As I struggled to find a new job, and met with loads of failure along that path, I withdrew on a personal level and battled depression for a long time, which didn’t help much with the discovery of new things. I stayed plugged into certain scenes, but over the past few years I’ve definitely become the type of person who mostly looks forward to new music from artists that he already enjoys.

Before I go down that road, though let’s look at my “path to middle-age” a little more directly…

  1. As a young adult, the desire for new and better sounds was insatiable. I acquired new music whenever I could. I also worked at a music retailer, which both fueled that desire and put the actual product right in front of me every day.
  2. After I left for a different niche in the retail world, I lost the “right in front of me” part. I still consumed music and looked for new sounds, but a little less voraciously so.
  3. A change in relationship (and, consequently, of the majority of my life environment), along with an increasing interest in video games, took some of that “more new music” space, both within me and with regard to my time budget.
  4. Once I had no job, the pocket money began to run out, and so, as I found myself less willing to spend money on music, I was also getting out of the habit of actively searching for it, in all the ways that that entails.
  5. As I became more depressed about my situation – feeling worthless and discouraged, and whatnot – that former eternal hunger for new music became more like a dying flame, in danger of flickering out.
  6. While I’m now employed again – and, consequently, in a much better place – I still don’t have the discretionary purchasing power to spend money on music – although I certainly would like to.

So that’s the look at what brought me to my current relationship with new music, on a micro/self level.

In the meantime, the music business/climate has changed immensely over the past several years – and so has the music itself. Several trends and styles have come and gone, and I’ve completely missed most of them. I’m generally fine with that.

There was a shift in my relationship with the new music that was being made – a lull, if you will – even before I stopped having money and time to spend on records. There was simply less music coming out that interested me. As the hipster thing (and I use that term very, very broadly) became more and more prevalent, I grew less and less interested in music being played/written about/talked about on WXPN (my local indie station) and other media. It seemed like, in the second half of the last decade, it became more difficult over time to find gems among the mass of music that was coming out. And so I began to unplug from most music and information outlets – not consciously or with purpose; it’s more like I just fell out of the habit of looking.

* * *

Over the past year or so, I’ve begun to more keenly feel the effects of getting older as well as all that I discussed above.

What am I looking forward to, when I do finally find myself with a little extra pocket change to use for some music? Well, I want to pick up the new Sebadoh album, Defend Yourself (“I Will” in the above video comes from that album). Down – Down IV – The Purple EP. Newsted – Heavy Metal Music. The latest albums by Queens Of The Stone Age, Testament, and Soundgarden. And that’s just a small sample of all of the rock/metal albums I’d like to acquire, without going into other genres. I could name so many more, but I won’t.

Anyway, Down and QOTSA were born in the early 1990s; Jason Newsted is the former Metallica/Voivod bassist; Testament, Soundgarden, and Sebadoh all started in the 1980s. Do you see a trend there? All artists that I’ve been listening to forever. New music, but not new artists.

Part of me wonders if that is wholly a bad thing – I think it isn’t. In particular, Newsted is something of an outlier, because even though he’s been around for almost 30 years, his new band/album represents his first real full-on push to make his own music readily available to any and every fan. Regardless, something binds each of these groups together: an established track record of quality, authenticity, and creativity.

Nevertheless, there is a big part of me – now that I am healthy again – that pines for those old days where I consumed new and diverse music like a hungry lion. Looking back at my former self, one of the things that I miss is that old hunger.

I can’t necessarily define why my formerly insatiable hunger for new and different has subsided to a point. Perhaps I’ve come to accept that it’s common sense that I won’t get to experience everything. I do know that in some ways, I enjoy looking for nuances more in the music I’ve listened to for a while, while in other ways I’ve come to enjoy the worthiness of a song for the song’s sake more than I used to.

Of course, not having the money to expand my collection has certainly put some walls around the extent of my reach. Whatever the reasons – changing as a person, being restricted financially, the changing of the musical and business climates over the years – my love of music isn’t diminished; it simply continues to evolve.

* * *

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


The micro-legacy of the murder of Dimebag Darrell, with respect to the relationship between Philip Anselmo and Vinnie Paul

December 8th, 2013

Nine years ago today, Dimebag Darrell Abbott, guitarist of Pantera, was shot and killed while playing a show with his band, Damageplan, at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. His murderer will not be named in this article, because he doesn’t deserve to be named. In the words of Zakk Wylde, “end of story.”

In the years since this tragedy occurred, there have been several ongoing conversations regarding Dimebag’s life, death, and legacy. To my eyes, as someone who has steadfastly followed the metal press for almost two decades, the predominant themes have been as follows (in no particular order):

  1. Dimebag as a legendary musician/guitarist
  2. Who’s responsible for the breakup of Pantera – Phil, or Dimebag?
  3. The cold war between Phil Anselmo (vocalist) and Vinnie Paul Abbott (drummer) since Dimebag’s death
  4. Phil and Vinnie should reconcile
  5. Who would play guitar in a Pantera reunion?

There are other themes, but these have been the major recurring ones over the years.

In my opinion, numbers 2 and 5 are unimportant.

In the case of who caused the breakup of Pantera, the Abbott brothers blamed Anselmo, and Anselmo blamed Dimebag, and the rest doesn’t matter. It happened, and the players went their separate ways. It could be (and has been) argued in hindsight that the breakup led to Darrell’s death, but as far as I’m concerned, all bets are off when a psychopath is concerned.

As far as who would play guitar in a reunion, I think that the metal press (including everyone who brings up the subject in interviews with either party) has collectively done both fans and the musicians themselves a disservice by asking about it incessantly over the years. Vinnie Paul and Phil haven’t spoken since at least 2004, and Vinnie Paul has ignored or rebuffed all of Phil’s overtures toward reconciliation to date. Until that massive, painful wall is dismantled and the mutual relationship is rebuilt – which is nowhere near a given, by the way – any discussion of a reunion is about as moot as it could possibly be while the remaining band members are still alive.

Nevertheless, the questions persist, and every week your favorite metal music site (pick one) has a link to a video of someone asking Phil Anselmo about Vinnie Paul and the abyss between them. While it’s understandable that the interviewers themselves are largely fans of Pantera – and, to their credit, some interviewers don’t go beyond asking about the status of the relationship itself – as time passes and nothing develops, I find myself increasingly baffled at the lack of depth and imagination of the questions that are asked of Anselmo in 2013.

But this post isn’t just about content of the questions the metal media usually asks. That’s a subject for another day, perhaps. What I’d like to do today is bring us back down to a basic human level with respect to why such a gulf exists between Vinnie Paul and Phil.

* * *

Philip Anselmo has obviously come a long way over the past decade.

By the time Darrell was killed in 2004, Anselmo had been exchanging barbs with the Abbott brothers over the inactive status of Pantera for a couple of years. It was an ugly series of exchanges. Things started out cold, with the Abbott brothers answering questions about the band with statements along the lines of “We’re ready to go, we’re just waiting on Phil.” However, the public feud escalated, with the parties throwing out barbs about each other’s current bands, and culminated with the following words by Anselmo appearing in an interview that appeared in the December 2004 issue of Metal Hammer, which hit newsstands just a week before Darrell was killed (link is from Blabbermouth from 12/1/2004):

He would attack me, vocally. And just knowing that he was so much smaller than me I could kill him like a fuckin’ piece of vapor, you know, he would turn into vapor — his chin would, at least, if I fuckin’ smacked it. And he knows that. The world should know that. So physically, of course, he deserves to be beaten severely.”

[Emphasis mine, reflecting that this is the quote that everyone remembers, due to its being published shortly before Darrell’s death.]

At the time, Anselmo had been touring and recording with Down and Superjoint Ritual since Pantera’s European tour had broken down in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, and was constantly giving interviews for those bands. I remember reading those words at the time and thinking that things had gone far enough. No fan of a band wants to see its members embroiled in a nasty feud, and this had become quite nasty.

Of course, Dimebag Darrell was murdered seven days later. The general scene was captured by a camera on stage, and is available on YouTube. It is a harrowing video, and was shown on CNN in its news report. I watched it at the time, and I watched it again for the first time since then this weekend. The band (Damageplan) is playing a song called “Breathing New Life” when the murderer crosses the stage and shoots Darrell, fires several more rounds, and takes a hostage before a police officer kills the murderer with one shot.

In the ensuing days, as details came to light, the world mourned one of metal’s greatest guitarists and nicest people. Darrell’s murder affected hundreds of thousands of music fans around the world – not to mention his loved ones – and in the wake of the tragedy, bands, venues, and promoters began to rethink security at shows, and attitudes toward fans jumping on stage changed. But that’s the larger picture.

Shortly after Darrell was killed, Phil Anselmo released a rambling, emotion-filled video, in which he apologized for his actions and expressed deep regret over not having the chance to reconcile with Darrell before he died. At the end of the video, he hardened himself enough to place blame for the murder on the metal media before signing off and proclaiming that he was going into seclusion. Here’s the video:

As annoying as it was to hear him direct blame at the music media, it seemed to me that he was deflecting blame as a form of coping mechanism, as a way to defend himself – to himself, among others – in lieu of possibly imploding under the crushing weight of guilt. While Phil Anselmo did not kill Dimebag Darrell, he did make the statement above. Regardless of whether it had been off the record, or had made it into a publication, he had said those words, and he had to live with that fact.

At the time, I felt for his combined pain of loss and guilt about his actions. And he did indeed disappear for several months, and later he had surgery to alleviate a serious back problem, eventually resurfacing in 2006 to give word that Down was reactivating and to perform with Alice In Chains at a tribute to Layne Staley.

* * *

Over the years since all of this occurred, I’ve followed the career of Phil Anselmo and the “latest” on the Vinnie-Phil feud. In that time, Anselmo has done nothing but praise and honor Darrell. He has repeatedly extended olive branches to Vinnie Paul. He has learned how to manage the chronic pain in his back through therapy, along with daily stretching and strengthening. He has rebuilt the strength behind his ferocious voice, post-surgery. And he’s made more music, as always.

But most of all, he has seemed more human in public than ever before. He’s been clean for years, and over time, his conversations in interviews have shown increased maturity and lucidity. While he’s still a straight shooter, his answers are delivered more thoughtfully than they used to be. The death of his friend still weighs upon him, as does the silent treatment from Vinnie Paul, but he doesn’t kill himself with the guilt every day. He shares love and blesses people – and is blessed by them – rather than incessantly focusing on separating himself from those he doesn’t agree with through put-downs and the like. He’s still Phil Anselmo, but he’s a changed Phil Anselmo.

I found this video a couple of years ago on YouTube. It’s an interview with him at Loyola University, approximately 2006, where he talks about his drug use. It’s a remarkable video, and once you get past the nervous introduction, things get very real and down to earth. It’s worth watching the whole video at some point where you have an hour to spare.

* * *

By stripping away the edifice of commentary and internet speculation that has built up over the years about the feud with Vinnie Paul, we can see the basics of their non-relationship a bit more clearly.

Without doing so, and without thinking critically about these basics, it’s tempting to fall in line with a simplified solution; in this case, that solution is (to paraphrase The Internet), “C’mon, Vinnie… Phil’s a changed man. Get together, clear things up, and then maybe have a Pantera reunion!”

“Simple,” however, does not automatically equal “easy.” While we can’t possibly know exactly the maelstrom of emotions that Vinnie Paul Abbott has had to wrestle with and work through over the course of the past ten years, there are the facts of his brother’s murder, his ex-bandmate Anselmo’s violent rhetoric against his brother just before the murder, and a recent legacy of bad blood prior to that. When Darrell died, his loved ones – Phil Anselmo included – had to reckon with untold grief. They had to learn to live after (and live with) what had happened. For Anselmo, I’m sure it was a major reality check. For Abbott and his family and loved ones – again, including Anselmo – it was indescribable devastation. Over the years, both parties have learned to live, and grown as human beings, after the tragedy.

However, time does not always heal wounds. The saying says that it does, but the truth is that it does not always do so. And so, even after nine years have passed, that time hasn’t made Vinnie Paul interested enough in Phil Anselmo to reciprocate with an olive branch of his own.

* * *

Which brings us to a further point: these men, who were once a singular unit together, have dealt with Dimebag Darrell’s death in different ways. This is a natural thing, since they are different people with different personalities.

Phil has worn Darrell on his sleeve, giving him respect and love at every turn, and will likely do so as long as he lives. As the party that had the final public say on the Pantera issue prior to Darrell’s death – and who most people believe was in the wrong in that – Phil is petitioning (personally) for closure. His closest connection to Darrell is Darrell’s brother, and that person has extracted himself completely from Phil’s life.

On the other side, Vinnie has also loved and honored his brother. He has also moved on, and made more music. But he’s in a different situation. As the multiply-aggrieved brother, he has professed no interest in Phil’s overtures. And since Darrell is no longer with us, Pantera is, in Vinnie’s mind, also dead. While Phil has constantly sought closure and redemption, and has lived his life in that vein, Vinnie has coped in part by excising himself from anything relating to Pantera’s future, including any relationship with Phil. It’s one of the ways he can feel healthy in the absence of his brother. He moves on, honors his brother, spreads the word, and plays in Hellyeah, his post-Damageplan band of several years. He has apparently found that he is happiest without Phil Anselmo in his life, and so that’s how he lives his life.

This should not be surprising to people. Human beings respond to grief and anger in different ways. It’s obvious that Vinnie feels that he is in the best place to cope with the loss of his brother by handling the situation exactly the way he has. In effect, he has acted according to his nature.

There is no blanket solution to counter or “fix” this. It’s simply the way it has been, and is, with Vinnie Paul.

As such, to relegate Vinnie Paul’s unimaginable pain and his ongoing adjustment to the “just get back together already” wagon is to miss the facts. Fans are certainly interested in a Phil-Vinnie Reunion. So is Phil. However, Vinnie obviously isn’t. Until he cracks the window a bit and reaches out his hand in Phil’s direction – as a result of some combination of a softening (or change) of heart, the passage of time, encouragement from family and close friends, etc. – that door is closed, and Phil has said that he respects that.

There is no one-size-fits-all alternative in this case. And metal music journalists of all stripes – along with fans who think that the one-size-fits-all “easy” solution is immediate and viable – need to learn that fact.

* * *

In closing…

I’ve written a lot of words here, and yet I still feel that I’ve completely failed to adequately make my point. Since I’m not a professional writer, a psychologist, or a learned logician, this is akin to my best effort, given the amount of time I’ve been able to put into this post. I hope that it has made sense to you, my friends and fellow fans.

And please: if you are a fan – and especially, a fan who also considers himself/herself a metal journalist – please give the “Pantera Reunion” and “Phil/Vinnie Reunion” subjects a break. It’s only logical that, if there is a reconciliation, it will be news, and it will be announced by one or both camps. And if that would ever lead to a “Pantera reunion featuring Zakk Wylde on guitar” or something to that effect, rest assured that that would obviously be announced as well, as it would be huge news (and that’s an understatement if there ever was one!). Constantly asking about it won’t make it happen, or happen any faster.

Finally – to Darrell, if you’re listening somewhere up above: you are loved by more people than you could ever know, my friend. Meeting you in late 2003 was one of the highlights of my life, and you were even nicer to me than I could have ever imagined you’d be. You’re eternally a musical and personal inspiration, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet you and talk with you. I think about you every time I play guitar. Peace.

* * *

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!