What do you do when you stop caring about something you used to love?
I moved to Salem, MA and basically stopped actively seeking live music. I still see live music – say, when my girlfriend and I go out to brunch and a jazz band happens to be performing there, or when a once-in-a-lifetime performance in the city happens – but for years I would spend hundreds of dollars almost every month trying to see as many bands as possible. There were so many possibilities, even in “our music scene is dying” Boston – I would frequent Great Scott and Harper’s Ferry/Brighton Music Hall and The Middle East and (begrudgingly) TT the Bear’s (just kidding, RIP).
I don’t think it’s because I’m getting older. I don’t think it’s even because bands aren’t impressing me anymore. I still listen to recorded music constantly and find new bands via blogs and Apple Music and friends’ posts.
I do think saturation has something to do with it. Software is eating the world and the Internet is eating media, and both of these things are eating our ability to be surprised. The barrier to entry for anyone to become a musician is virtually gone, and it’s really easy for anyone with a slight ego to fight for your attention. The barrier to entry to start a blog or generate commentary on said music is also gone, so with every million bands that form, there are 100 million people ready to comment on said bands.
So you have tons of musicians out there, striving to outdo each other with better performances and more inventive production in order to satisfy the even more so-called critics. The caliber of the average musician is so much higher as a result – and every musician is looking to surprise you, the listener-critic, constantly. Every night holds hundreds of amazing shows competing for your time & attention – secret exclusive shows, bizarre live rigs, intense theatrics, warm acoustic sets – all of which are constantly trying to compete for your interest. It’s all amazing…until it’s all the same to you.
And so I’ve become desensitized to the ability to be surprised by live music.
I’ve been meaning to write about being a musician on the North Shore of MA and how live performance here is different than, say, Brooklyn or Cambridge or other major cities with credible music scenes. I wanted to write about the fact that there is a small but lively group of musicians hopping up and down the shore, playing long & extremely entertaining sets in front of small, passionate North Shore crowds at quaint restaurants and bars. I wanted to write about the scene being smaller, thus allowing me to have a shot of regularly performing with a tight-knit group of collaborators.
None of that has actually happened, and that’s on me. But when you struggle to be surprised by anyone else performing, how can you expect to be inspired to surprise others with your own performance?
Goal: by April, have a live acoustic/looper set prepared and book a show. Try it out.
As part of my reflection on the music that inspired me in 2015, I started writing a bit about those albums and songs that will largely be overlooked by Big Music – but are still ambitious, challenging and exceedingly interesting. In this post, I’ll discuss the first progressive metal album I’ve listened to in years, Earthside’s A Dream In Static, and why this album is particularly important to me.
Why do you listen to music? Most people seem to just to get through their sad, meaningless existence – whether that means mellowing out to a pleasant acoustic ditty or raging to a club banger or some good punk rock. But regardless of what genre or why, you put music on in the background to feel something.
TLDR: If you want to not just feel something, but feel it with a level of intensity you might not have before while listening to music, you should listen to A Dream in Static by Earthside.
I grew up listening to mostly angry music. My parents didn’t push this upon me – in fact, they didn’t really make me angry at all or neglect me or listen to any angry music themselves – all I had was radio and my MTV. I distinctly remember the first time I saw the video for Eve 6’s “Inside Out” and having the silly cathartic moment that every young boy feels when he first witnesses ANGST. I started headbanging. I was then running around my parents’ living room, not dancing, but slamming my feet into the ground, punching the air in miserable joy. I wasn’t a sad or angry kid, but I think this (and a few other songs) stuck with me in such a way that dark and angry music resonated with me more so than any other.
When I first heard Tool’s “Schism” in 2001, I had a similar standout moment – the video, but more importantly the music, shocked me. Rock music could not only let me express my (misplaced) anger, but also make me feel awe, dread, all those existential feelings I had never experienced to that point at the ripe young age of 12. It was shortly after this that I learned that Tool was of a group of largely uncategorizable heavy bands, but usually pigeonholed into the genre of “progressive metal” – an overly generalized term for bands who skirt the norms of time & key signature, focus on big topics & bigger sound, and have small but extremely rabid fanbases. I became one of those rabid fans – first of Tool, then of Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Ayreon, Opeth and various others. I shared this with my dad who then exposed me to Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, and I became obsessed. I HAD to learn everything about every song, how they all connected, what bizarre alternate realities the songs existed within, how the time signatures within a song related to the purpose of the song itself.
In 2004 I picked up bass guitar and, shortly thereafter, joined a band in high school bent on making powerfully emotive and complex music to try and channel this fascination into something productive. But because we were nerdy teens from suburban Connecticut, we didn’t have a whole lot of actual hardship to channel into powerfully emotive music. Plus, none of us were confident in our ability to write lyrics – so we made dark, edgy, self-indulgent instrumentals with silly names like “Mariachi Massacre” and “The Greatest Wall.” But it was a hell of a lot of fun – and we made some fairly cool music for a bunch of weird teenagers from Connecticut.
Then I went to college, started drinking, got a girlfriend, and landed my first internship – which happened to be in both the music & tech industry. I was around tons of other musical tastes and quickly got tired of the pretentiousness of prog metal. It just wasn’t vibing anymore, man. So I quit that band in late 2008 and tried my hand at some other stuff: a Talking Heads cover band, playing lead guitar in a stoner rock band, trying my hand at writing alone and with other people. To my old band, I said that I didn’t want to write music like that anymore and could not endure the impossible uphill battle that is trying to achieve noteworthiness as a prog metal musician. My tech career was more lucrative and important.
I remember a few years earlier when Jamie (Earthside guitarist and one of my closest friends to this day) sent me a rough cut of “The Closest I’ve Come,” a sprawling instrumental track that I had learned a few years prior when they asked me to fill in on bass for a show. They had finally locked down a permanent bassist in Ryan Griffin and tightened up the composition to the point where it was release-ready. I remember being impressed by my former comrades – an appropriate development of the initial sound we had established as Bushwhack, more focused, “cinematic” and, most importantly, nuanced. There is a specific breakdown roughly 6 minutes into the song in which all instruments abruptly pause – except for a quiet, ominous arpeggiating keyboard line that wisps you out of riffs and into a floating sensation. The guitar levitates with you, occasionally supplementing the keyboards with subtle harmonic feedback. It’s as if you’re being slowly pulled upward toward the cosmos – until drums, bass and guitars suddenly shatter a glass ceiling above you and push you back down to the ground with the most brutal rhythm of the song thus far.
To say that this was representative of the scope of the album they were working on is a gross understatement. Jamie had mentioned they were toying with the idea of guest vocalists, researching string quartets and small orchestras to record with and some producer in Sweden I hadn’t heard of. I largely disregarded all of this – where did they have the money to pull all that off? I certainly didn’t, and I was the one with the lucrative tech career.
But after over almost 7 years of hard work, Earthside finally released a true debut – an 8-track, hour-plus-long catharsis of a debut. It’s sometimes a difficult listen: it’s brutal, it’s morose, it’s jagged and it’s exceedingly triumphant, sometimes all in one track. It begins with the aforementioned “The Closest I’ve Come” as a hint of the journey this album takes, which in the band’s words encapsulates “everything we are as human beings” – which isn’t wrong.
See, the thing with A Dream in Static is that, while it occasionally uses prog-metal clichés in its song titles and lyrics (eg. all the self-actualization stuff, the song title “Entering the Light”), it makes the rare achievement of actually embodying those emotions and ideas in full. “Entering the Light” makes you feel like you’re actually marching toward said light, and then when all instruments are distant except for a quiet string harmony, you feel as if you’ve finally made it – only to discover you’re back where you started, marching again. I haven’t heard another rock song (let alone an instrumental!) that made me contemplate my own mortality like this in years. The scale of this album is enormous, and that’s ignoring the fact that these are still my nerdy friends from high school. Every single performance of every single idea is executed flawlessly – technically near-perfect but still human at its core.
Let’s talk about the 10-minute “single,” “Mob Mentality” – if any song attempts to represent the absurd mess of the state of our country right now, this could be the song that does it. (Ironically, it was recorded in Sweden.) I know this song is deeply personal to Jamie, as he wrote it both as a senior college thesis and as a means to deal with his own confusion of his life’s next steps, in a world where influencers are complicating your own worldview more than ever. Who has any idea what the hell is going on in their own lives and what’s going to happen next? And better yet, how is the persistent influence of others making that anxiety any less overwhelming? The sheer scale that the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Lajon Witherspoon’s 1 performances bring to this workout of a piece is daunting, but also intensely relatable and satisfying.
There are three key breaks in the piece that make the song work. The first, a deliberate breath of curious air; the second, a sudden dip into playful terror as Lajon sings “and I pray for you to see / I’ve been sheltered by my bliss”. The last break of note occurs with only about 40 seconds remaining, after the song’s final climax has already been hit – it’s the song’s “Oh shit!” moment as the band takes you back to the original melodic idea that began this ride.
Oh, and this is the second track on the album.
There is no particular secret sauce to a progressive rock or metal record; some songwriters devise a complex storyline or overarching concept which may be explored lyrically or within the musical structure itself. However, much of “prog” has fallen into one of two traps: it either falls back on past tropes and stereotypes and, in the process, loses originality and/or emotional weight; or it gets so tightly fused into other genres of music that it’s barely noticeable (read: the first two Coheed & Cambria albums, which I still find excellent). When I was playing prog metal in Bushwhack, we were intensely aware of those tropes – as well as tropes in other styles of music – and tried to turn them upside down and meld them together into odd results. Over time it became less about fun genre-shifting for our own amusement and more about actively trying to bring complex (yet sometimes competing) ideas and finding some kind of emotional synergy. I’m happy that this band continued down this path.
“Skyline” (track 5) probably contains this year’s most awe-inspiring musical idea. As the band explains, about seven minutes in, the song follows 3 rhythmically competing lines (on piano, drums and lead guitar) for nearly a minute, winding around each other like synchronized birds in flight. Then suddenly they all meet and come into rhythmic unison in one of the most joyful, cathartic, nearly orgasmic musical expressions of cosmic scale I’ve heard. Even before this moment, this song dazzles: the song begins with a sudden thud after the quiet march of previous track “Entering the Light” and, after a brief introductory theme, breaks into my 2nd favorite bass line of the year (sorry guys – “King Kunta” wins this one).
Structurally, this album is half vocal tracks and half instrumentals, but each track contains at least one satisfying surprise. The title track, which features Tesseract’s Daniel Tompkins on lead vocals, seems unassuming at first – until its first chorus. I have not heard a more intensely joyful vocal performance in prog than Daniel’s in this song. “Ungrounding” is the one instrumental I haven’t mentioned yet, and while it seems fairly straightforward technical metal at first, there are two elements of this track that once again demonstrate the mastery of composition this band has. First: Frank (keyboardist)’s melodic line – out of context, it honestly sounds like it was lifted from a trance or hip hop track. It’s this fast-moving airy synth that almost works an attempted homage to Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop”. But once placed against the rhythmic complexity of “Ungrounding”, it takes on a whole new character that embraces chaos – what was once intended to put its listeners into a trance has now run amok.
Second: What the first half of “Ungrounding” does to inspire chaos, the second half does to make sense of it. There are feelings of grief, rage and outright fatigue (paired with a downtempo, down-octave version of the original synth melody). I remember first listening to this song and not expecting much beyond the first minute or two, but the second half pulls you back in with force – a testament to Earthside’s ability to truly capture attention and tap into the deepest reaches of your psyche.
The album closes with “Contemplation of the Beautiful,” a nearly-12-minute brooding funeral march; one could argue that it refers to the previous 7 tracks just as much as its subject’s waning sense of self. A Dream in Static does encompass everything we are as human, from the wonder of birth to inevitable death. Its ability to traverse tough, complex emotional ground with focus & grace, and it’s affected the music I find inspiring and even how I approach writing music. It tells a story through music more vividly than most concept albums I’ve heard and has reinvigorated my interest in metal & prog, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who genuinely wants to feel their emotions heightened by sound.
But more importantly, my friends made this record. Friends whom I have a history with making music and I left to pursue my own path. Part of me wants to be jealous, to question my decisions to pursue tech and solo songwriting; but a much bigger part of me is proud and amazed at these guys. They gave me a reason to once again appreciate my musical foundations and our time together as a band. If anyone reads this and happens to have a friend in a band, I encourage you to give that band an honest listen – they might just surprise you with something great.
DB: This was a more intertwined collaboration than most I’ve done. In many ways it was more democratic — we were constantly bouncing what we were doing off one another. Which is creatively great, but also slow — democracy is slow. [laughs]
AC: The tech-y stuff was a headache, honestly. We’d send files back and forth in [music program] Logic, and because I had an older version of the software, I would have to reassign a bunch of David’s tracks that he had painstakingly assigned, and then send it back to him with an apology….One of the earliest songs we worked on was called “The Forest Awakes” and it started as this 6/8, hockety horn thing that I sent to David. I had been kicking that idea around for a while, but I could never figure out how to sing over it. What melody would even fit over this that wouldn’t feel like a distraction? David sent it back with a melody, and I was like, “Yes! Thank god!” It was a puzzle I couldn’t finish, and he put the right piece in.
DB: Most of the excitement for me is when I could see things getting to a point where I’d go, “This is nothing like anything I would’ve come up with alone.” It’s the whole point of collaboration.
This challenge has stayed with me for some reason. Making music with others is incredibly satisfying, but not only is it hard by default — it’s even harder trying to wrangle people who aren’t nearby. When we moved to Salem, I knew this was going to be a challenge — I had made a bunch of friends & connections down in New York but only knew a few people on the quiet North Shore of MA that played music. You can obviously connect with these people, but I wanted to maintain creative relationships with people I knew I could work well with:
James, a sound engineer and friend from high school who has been mixing/mastering Sophomores tracks with me for the past two years; and
Mary, a singer I met in 2014 at a house music showcase and I’ve been writing dark bluesy rock music with for a few months
One lives in Bushwick Brooklyn, the other lives in Astoria Queens. It was convenient to play and record with them in NYC, but the new distance presented its challenges. Mary and I had discussed traveling to record and perform but that requires weeks of notice and planning. So, I had to figure out my own working system for remote collaboration.
Managing the work
Since I’m a project management nut, this was naturally the first thing that I worried about. Fortunately, I had already found a love in Trello that led to project planning issues being resolved quickly.
I created a Sophomores organization in Trello that contains all my projects. Each project (an album, EP or collaborative project) gets its own board — for instance, I have a board for sessions with Mary, another for my current album in progress, and another collecting ideas for a music video I’ll eventually have made.
For a given project, each song has 3 cards representing it (songwriting, my own mix, James’ mix). There are also supplementary cards for other related tasks — transition notes, metadata, file structure, etc.
All official progress updates are made as comments via Trello. Whenever James has a new mix of one of my songs, he posts the URL to listen on his S3 server, and we can easily do rudimentary version tracking via the comments on a particular card.
We use checklists to collect and respond to feedback. Sometimes James and I will get a little carried away and add silly comments here and there, but it’s for fun.
Making the music
Now to the actual music making. I’ve been using Logic Pro X and Reason primarily to make music for a while now with some great results; James works on a PC and Mary doesn’t have a recording rig at all. So we needed a way to easily send each other ideas, bounced mixes and sometimes full sessions.
Amazon S3 largely solves James’ and my issues for file sharing. I can upload an entire Reason file and bounced tracks in a few minutes, and he can pull this into his own rig easily. We both use Presonus’ Studio One for mastering and metadata, and sharing full sessions via an S3 bucket is easy. On the list: start versioning these things.
Sending audio to/from Mary is a bit trickier since she doesn’t have a recording rig of her own. Thanks to iOS and GarageBand, however, this is starting to become easier. I can record basic guitar, piano and scratch vocal tracks via my iPad and Apogee Duet, and send them to her to review — she can even do the same on her phone. Then I can import these into Logic for more nuanced work. Vocals are a bit tricky still — I have a decent space for recording (to be detailed in a future blog post) but Mary and I are working to figure out a working setup for her to record her own vocals. Fortunately, Mary’s got a voice that sounds great via even a basic dynamic mic — so an SM58 should work fine for her.
This is all a work in progress, but I’ve enjoyed being able to make music in such a modular manner while still collaborating with some of my close friends. I’ll continue to post updates on my recording projects both here and on my own site — those who are interested, please share your own ideas on this stuff.
Sophomores – “head on my heart” (NPR Tiny Desk Concert Contest Submission)
BIG ANNOUNCEMENT: my project Sophomores is now live! Check out an acoustic rendition of one of my new songs “head on my heart”, which I submitted to NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest! Super excited for this.
At what point did humans say “I am born with the right to free music”? I am deeply saddened by the notion that price of your Chipotle burrito is worth more than the blood sweat and tears musicians across the world have poured into creating everlasting art, that brings passion to this earth far beyond any burrito.
my good friend Frank from the band Earthside, valuing the music he and his peers create.
Is Nickelback seriously still making music? Is it even worth calling this music? Is this just a joke?
The juxtaposition of the epic solar eclipse album cover with the title, which apparently was inspired by “the fact that the album was recorded in many different places, and they never settled in a single spot”, must be a joke in itself.
There’s a track with Flo Rida. That also must not have been done with any hint of being serious.
My debut album as SOPHOMORES is now available in full to listen on SoundCloud. Big thanks to all those who helped whittle this down to a finished product over the past year or so. A digital/physical release is coming soon, as well as live performances.
I don’t think I’ve heard a rock vocalist sing with this much anger in the last 10 years. Not even Trent gets this passionately angry to the point where he has to catch his breath mid-song, literally spits out lines like “SHE WORE THE SAME BBBBRANDS” and consciously lets his voice crack in order to hold a word. It makes me want to punch a wall in the best ways.
So the marathon tragedy thing happened. I don’t usually get emotional about things like this but having it happen so close and with so much uncertainty was especially unsettling this time. (Relying on Twitter and local news for updates clearly didn’t help, either.) I can’t anything more emotionally valid or witty or powerful than what’s already been said, so I won’t bother.
I spent Monday evening working on an arrangement of a song that a friend of mine wrote over a year ago which seemed oddly appropriate for the day – given the unexpectedness of everything. I’m still not sure whether or not I’d release it as a sphmrs track or something, but once finished I was really happy with the end result: imperfect, but naturally complete and capturing the feelings of the moment.
this is one hell of a place interface set up to let the bomb drop killer in a bed of lace little taste of the power then you don’t stop
eating from the deepest sea blissfully tell your friends that they should try it while his only energy comes to be from a saltwater diet
getting all your nutrients from innocence tell me, does she fill your hunger? oh my god, in his defense at present tense i’m not healthier or stronger
This is a recording I just finished that may very well be a track on a future taken by name record. I played two great piano chords, reversed them, and came up with two more for the second half. Then I got this sweet guitar fuzz tone that reminded me of Ratatat. Then I sang some pretty paranoid lyrics I had written into an SM58 while wrapped in a blanket. (It’s cold.)
I like the sound of things when they get looped, especially when other things are looped against them. By extension, I admire the hell out of Steve Reich. This recording in particular is cool because of how the vocals work against each other because of the poor quality of recording. It’s difficult to focus on just one lyric.
Note the inclusion of a digitized speech by this guy during the first half (he’s actually pretty interesting and totally crazy).