Thursday, July 16, 2009

New Stuff 2010 - 2011

Swarga ki Sans - The name, pronounced "svarky sahns", means "Breath of Heaven" in Hindi. I'd long toyed with the idea of making a song based on or inspired by the exotic sounds of India. That inclination became even stronger when I made a new internet friend who had a habit of posting videos of Indian songs and movies on Facebook. I really enjoyed those, and the sounds and melodies became deeply ingrained into my psyche. This tune was further inspired when that particular internet friend became engaged; the sight of her smile after having been kind of unhappy for so long really seemed like a breath of fresh air straight from Heaven. (It's not exactly authentic Indian music, though; the tambura plays too many different notes. So sue me!)

The melody line was played on my Keilwerth alto sax with a change of mouthpieces (Selmer in the beginning, Yanagisawa metal in the latter part), but the lion's share of the work is done by a wild battery of guitar tracks, mainly helping test out the variety of effect pedals I'd recently acquired. My MXR stereo chorus and Xotic BB Plus in particular got a lot of breaking in.

This tune is a personal favorite of mine. Incidentally, I also submitted it to the 2011 Torycon (All Japan Amateur Recording) contest. It didn't get any kind of an award, but its score was only one point shy of "One Rare Moment With You" (q.v.), which was a judges' pick. It also got very good, very critical, and very helpful comments from the panel of near-celebrity judges, who remembered me from last year!

Demabloguery - Sometime back in February of 2009 I came up with a spontaneous idea for a bass line and quickly recorded it so I wouldn't forget it. I then forgot I'd recorded it. For over a year it languished on the hard drive of my studio laptop. Cut to the summer of 2010. For some reason I remembered it, possibly because it was kind of bizarre, and I called it up, dusted it off, and worked on it.

This tune is meant to be my musical impression of the overwhelming majority of political discussions (if you can call them that) that I've been seeing on the internet lately. For the most part it's just the same things repeated over and over with a lot of whining and griping but not a whole lot of substance, and the whole thing is really kind of pointless. It's kind of a weird, surfer-punk style, which is fitting since it was inspired by net surfing. If nothing else, it was a lot of fun.

All of the guitar parts were done on the Telecaster, which I don't think I've ever done before. I experimented with a lot of different pickup/amp/effect combinations to see what kinds of sounds I could come up with. The bass, which started it all, was plugged directly into the sound interface. There's a cheesy organ part played on my Roland synth and a ditzy synth part played using my Sonic Cell. The drum part was programmed in MIDI but mostly recorded in real time played by hand (using a keyboard controller) and performed using Sonar's built-in Session Drummer.

No More Coffee - My other big summer project! This one came out of music club training camp. I and the other teachers, clinicians, and alumni making up the staff were basically getting by on 3-4 hours of sleep per night (usually with copious amounts of drinking the night before). Not surprisingly, we relied on a heavy intake of coffee to function during the day. The problem was that the coffee dispenser provided by the hotel wasn't very big, and when our staff was at its peak the supply tended to disappear quickly. I found that out the hard way one morning, and I was in truly pathetic condition all day. My half-zombie/half-irritable mood finally knotted up while I was sitting in the lobby listening to a 7th grader practicing the bassoon. I ran back to my room, grabbed my computer, and started on this tune...which not surprisingly uses bassoons as a principal melody part!

The rhythm, bassoon, and harpsichord parts were programmed using Sibelius and performed using Sonar's built-in sound font player. To this I added a soft melody track using my Arturia MiniMoog V emulator (a DXi soft synth, first used in "Matching Smiles") and a few incidental keyboard tracks, most prominent of which was a theramin sound. There is a short, quiet, and totally weird guitar solo in the middle that I made by playing through a reverse delay effect (set 75% wet so you mainly hear the backwards echo) and using both auto-wah and auto-panning to make it really insane.

Hey...that's the way I was feeling at the time, and it keeps falling apart till the end, when happy sounds greet the arrival of a fresh batch of coffee!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Turquoise Era: 2009 -

The Glowing Zone (2010)

1. Chasing the Zone
2. Real in Real Time
3. Tanka Truck
4. Clackamette
5. Cut and Run
6. What I Would Have Said
7. Regrets
8. Preprise
9. The Glowing Zone
10. Per'anai
11. Warranty
12. Stumbled Through
13. Floral Aura
14. Matching Smiles
15. One Rare Moment Together
16. Swarga ki Sans
17. Helicopter Mom

This album picked up where Blue Taxi left off and represented yet another level up in my production. After creating websites and other promotional tools to share my work, I was surprised by the resulting requests for me to make my music commercially available. This is the first album that I put together with that end in mind, i.e. the intent to market it online.

The Glowing Zone - The title track was pieced together out of various short recording sessions I squeezed in whenever I was able. The main rhythm guitar part just popped into my head one day, and I took it from there. There were a lot of stressful things going on all around me, and I was determined not to let any of it drag me down, so my work on this song provided me with a handy escape; it was a "glowing zone" in the middle of the darkness, so to speak.

I originally intended for this to be a song with a vocal part, and the melody was conceived with that in mind. While I was working on it, I decided to put in a sort of ghost vocal track using the tin whistle to use as a reference until the lyrics were ready. However, I drew a complete blank; I couldn't for the life of me think of a good idea for lyrics. On the other hand, I thought the tin whistle had a nice, cheery sound, so I went with it, bringing in the sax later. The tune therefore wound up being an instrumental. (People seem to be liking those better anyway...)

I was surprised the sax line turned out as well as it did. I hadn't touched the thing in months, and getting my fingers to move was a chore, but I still managed to get it all done within the space of an hour. I had far less trouble with the tin whistle, the various guitar parts, and the piano part, which I actually played on a digital piano with weighted keys.

That weird guitar opening is my Strat HSS using a Marshall JCM-800 model, my Marshall Guv'nor Plus distortion pedal, and my Yamaha SX-90 rack-mounted effects processor set to reverse-gate reverb. (I added the phase-shifter on the board later.) The rhythm guitar part is my Telecaster, also using the JCM-800. The various guitar parts that pop up later were either my SG or the Strat using either the JCM-800, Boogie Dual Recto, or a Vox AC-30 model in tandem with either my Zoom 5000, Marshall Guv'nor Plus, or Boss Metal Zone pedals. (At the very end you can hear the latter two growling in unison.)

Tanka Truck - During the summer of 2007 I got a few presents for myself: Sonar 8 Producer's Edition, a new computer to go with it, and a Cakewalk sound interface. This song was the first test of the new setup. I'd toyed with the idea of setting Japanese tanka poems to music for some time; I'd done so once before, on one of my earlier albums, but I wasn't satisfied. (For one thing, I'd fudged the traditional tanka pattern.) This time I was determined to maintain the customary rhythm and build the tune around it.

I started with the piano and bass synth parts, which I recorded in MIDI played on my Edirol keyboard controller. I then programmed drums and added a few other backing keyboard parts. As a sound source, I used a battery of software synths including Pentagon, Adonis, Cyclone, D-Zone, and the VST version of Synthfont (soundfonts mainly compliments of Merlin and Gort). Next I plugged my Fender Precision bass directly into the Cakewalk interface and doubled the bass line. Then I made a rhythm track out of this which I took upstairs, put in my studio laptop, and used as backing to record the guitar, koto, wind synth, additional keyboard, and vocal parts. Finally, I copied the latter tracks, added them to the original mix on my new computer, put it all together, and mastered it. This is the result.

The koto is genuine; my wife gave it to me for my birthday years ago, but I'd hardly touched it. I thought about adding real shakuhachi, hichiriki, and kokyu parts, but it was clear that it was going to take a long time to work them up to spec. I therefore stuck with the koto plus a shakuhachi part that I added using the wind synth.

The lyrics are all my original tanka, and can be seen on my main blog site. A lot of people have told me they really like this tune, so here it is.

One Rare Moment Together - I closed the 2009-2010 fiscal/school year with another instrumental. (This definitely seems to be my principal direction now.) It all started with me noodling around on the cheap Pro Martin acoustic guitar I use at the school. I had the capo set on the 7th fret and was improvising in 3/4 time. This tune just came out. I brought the guitar home and plugged it directly into my upstairs recording setup (It has a built-in pickup, albeit not a very good one) to lay down a fake track, but when I overdubbed a "real" track using the Pro Martin I liked the sound of the two tracks together so much that I just left them as is. Then I got out my Epiphone 6-string (with new phosphor bronze strings), clipped on the Fishman pickup, and laid down a couple more parts doing different things. I like the sound of the growing guitar ensemble, so I threw in a couple of tracks on my 12-string, too. That's when I had a completely different idea.

At first I considered writing lyrics and doing a vocal part, but that got left by the wayside. I'd been wanting to do a recorder-based tune for some time, and this seemed like a good opportunity. The guitar ensemble had overgrown the melody line, so I put a soprano recorder on it. My old veteran recorder, a cheap student model, just did not want to play in tune, so I went out and bought a better one. It's joined down the line by my alto recorder (still the old friend) followed by my new sopranino one. I really got a good idea of what my recorders can and can't do well at my level of ability, so partly for that reason and partly because I wanted a bit of a change, I added my Irish tinwhistle, too (Two, actually - the solo in the bridge is played on a C whistle, and the changeover theme is played on a D one).

Although the melody stays more or less the same throughout the piece, the instrumentation evolves as it goes, so I decided to take it even further by adding a percussion/drum line followed by bass (still in D tuning from "Floral Aura"), my Telecaster (bridge pickup) using a Marshall JCM-800 model played clean with chorus, an SG "punch" part (bridge pickup) using the JCM-800 boosted with my Marshall Guv'nor (grunge sound) and Reflector (room reverb) pedals, my Strat (bridge pickup) doubling the "punch" using a HiWatt dr-103 boosted with Boss Metal Zone and Delay/Reverb pedals, a melody double part on the SG (both pickups) using the HiWatt boosted with the Guv'nor (fat blues sound) and Reflector (spring reverb), and another unison part played on the SG (neck pickup) using the same pedals but a Vox AC-30 amp model and added delay. The mix was finally topped off with string (my Roland keyboard synth) and choir (the SonicCell) parts.

All technical stuff aside, I'm finding that I enjoy doing this kind of music most of all, so there will probably be more like it. Also, in 2011 I submitted this tune to the Torycon (All Japan Amateur Recording) contest, and it was one of the judges' picks, my best result to date!

Matching Smiles - This is my first new tune since completing the BLUE TAXI CD. It was inspired by a beautiful story I've had the privilege of watching unfold on the blogosphere and Facebook. The lyrics are directly based on, and sometimes even paraphrased from, the comments of the friend at the center (or should I say at one of the two centers?) of the tale.

From an artistic and experimental standpoint, this song is notable in that all of the synth parts except the drums were made using soft synths rather than hardware. Whether I used a keyboard or not, the sounds were all produced from within the computer. The piano, English horn, and bass synthesizer parts were soundfonts downloaded off the internet (mainly from the HammerSound library). The synth solo when the beat first picks up was played using my new Arturia Minimoog V emulator (which I know I'm going to have fun with...if I can find the time to play with it!). The ethereal string sound accompanying most of the song is the Stringer, a freeware VST synth plug-in created by FalkesLab (whose site seems to be MIA) which emulates vintage string synths. (The template I used is the Eminent 310, which is what Jean Michele Jarre used on his first albums.)

As for guitarwork, the principle rhythm part is my Telecaster using a Matchless DC-30 amp model (set fairly clean). This is then boosted with my Strat HSS using a Marshall JCM-800 model and the Sonic Cell's reverse-gate reverb. The first, plain solo was done with my SG using a vintage Fender (Blackface) Deluxe model boosted with an Ibanez Tube Screamer (i.e. a very American sound). The guitar chorus that follows was mainly my SG going through a variety of things; the high voice is one of my PODxt's fantasy amps modded with reverse reverb and enhancer via my Sonic Cell, the two main backing voices are going through a Hiwatt DR-103 amp model with just a touch of delay and reverb (i.e. a classic British sound), and the less-clear descants behind them are my Marshall Guv'nor Plus and Reflector pedals going through a clean Marshall amp model. The bass, as always my trusty Fender Precision, was direct-lined through a Roland Direct Box.

Blue Taxi (2009)
Blue Taxi

1. Herald of the Dawn
2. Perspective
3. Blue Taxi
4. Promise
5. Which Do You Fear
6. Live With You
7. Invisible Man
8. Publicly Private
9. Erweina
10. Secret Identity
11. From the Hat
12. Tribal Culture
13. News du Jour
14. Quite Enough
15. Not Baroquen In
16. Intelligent Evolution
17. Give Us Back

A major turning point in my composition and home recording came with the establishment of an all-digital studio setup based on a Roland Sonic Cell and a computer running Edirol's Cakewalk Sonar 7 (which came in a turquoise-colored box; hence the name of this "era"). Although it took up far less space than my old equipment, the new gear allowed me resources that I could only dream of before.

Of course, all this came at the expense of a steep learning curve. I acquired the equipment and dabbled with it while still working on the Blog Blunder album (below). Once I was satisfied that I had learned enough, I mothballed the old equipment and started working with Sonar and the Sonic Cell exclusively. There was still a lot of hands-on learning involved. The first album of the Turquoise Era, Blue Taxi, was more or less a collection of experiments. Just as the Open Halls album came about through my testing out my new (at the time) PODxt, Blue Taxi was intended from the start to be a sort of training course. Some have argued that I overdid the production work, sacrificing musicality in favor of "cheap effects", but the whole point was to see what I could do and what would result from my experimentation. Besides, I feel that, musically, this is a stronger album than Blog Blunder.

Herald of the Dawn - The album kicks off with this instrumental. It was pieced together out of two different song ideas that just seemed to segue together. I was in the mood to do something guitar-oriented and upbeat. I just recorded the two main rhythm guitar parts and then stacked things on top of it. I used a number of different guitar/amp/effect combinations, but it's still fairly basic. The real fun was with the vocals and sax.

I originally planned to write lyrics for this song, but I couldn't come up with any good inspiration for it, so I gave up and left it as a hummed chorus. I thought it worked better that way, so I went ahead and posted it that way. After a while, however, (and after listening to comments from others), I decided it wasn't quite enough, so I went back and added the sax lead. It definitely spices things up, I'd say.

Incidentally, I sent this song into an all-Japan home recording contest sponsored by my regular musical instrument store chain. It didn't win any awards, and I'm still waiting for the judges' comment sheets, but it still felt pretty good doing it.

BLUE Taxi - The title track, another instrumental (one of five on the album - a record), was just a spontaneous and rather impulsive idea...maybe an attempt to ward off some of the grimness that had been surrounding our household in the wake of my mother-in-law's death. The layered sequencer rhythms that start at the beginning were originally inspired by a photo I was looking at of a creek flowing through one of the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. I just popped open one of my little MIDI programming applications (in this case Midisoft's Studio 4) and started laying down tracks for the heck of it. The idea of forming it around a blues progression came later, as did the addition of drum and guitar/bass riff tracks. After that I just sort of went with whatever idea crossed my head, adding tracks, deleting tracks again, adding effects, adjusting effects, deleting effects, and just having fun.

I originally intended to make lyrics for this song, maybe a philosophical rant in layered harmony, but I gave in to random impulse again and made it an instrumental.

The title comes from the fact that, during the leadup to the funeral and the event itself, I often had to provide taxi service to and from the Suigo-Itako Bus Terminal (a good twenty minutes one way) in my BLUE RAV4. This is driving music!

Erweina - Yet another instrumental, included here because it got so many favorable comments (and it's a favorite of mine). I was in the mood to do something mostly synth-based, and that Juno string sound just said, "Use me, please!" That was the track that went on first, followed by the bass and then...other stuff. All the parts were recorded in real time, though I did quantize the drum and sequencer tracks to clean them up a bit. I also recorded the bass, drums, and sequencer tracks in MIDI first so I could try them out with different sounds before settling on ones I liked. I then used my (forlorn) keyboard synth to flesh things out a bit.

There are three different melody parts, the first being my wind synth, which I had broken out of mothballs and dusted off for another instrumental (not included here). I had originally planned to use my sax, but I had trouble finding opportunities to record it because my recording was mainly restricted to nighttime after everyone else was in bed. Since the "windex" was out, I figured I might as well use it instead. The second one was my keyboard synth using a modified sawtooth lead sound, something I could cut loose and jam on a bit. A guitar part comes in partway through (my Strat, neck pickup, using a modeled Roland Jazz Chorus amp), first playing rhythmic arpeggios and then jumping into the melody sandbox with the keyboard synth.

The title (which is bound to cause certain eyes to roll) comes from a fantasy place name, i.e. a temple mountain in a sci-fi/fantasy setting.

Secret Identity - This was an unexpected fan favorite, an wow, did I have fun with it! It wasn't just all those different vocal parts (six, to be exact) in harmony using different effects and pans. It wasn't just all those guitar parts (Telecaster/Roland Jazz Chorus, Telecaster/Fender Deluxe w/ Tube Screamer, SG/Matchless Chieftain, Strat/Line 6 Chemical X, SG/Line 6 Chemical X, 12-string acoustic dry & plain). It wasn't just the fact that I recorded the basics of the drum track in real time and then went back and shifted things around and added twists and fills. I think the best part was the fact that this was the first tune I'd ever pieced together. I often have lots more snippets in mind than ideas for complete songs, and composing is often a matter of picking and choosing bits and fitting them together. This time I recorded different snippets at different times and stuck them together to make a rhythm guitar fake track. I then built the song around it (and took the fake track out). Yes, there are some mood swings in the middle (as exemplified by the guest appearance of Slowdive in the middle)(Just kidding).

As for the lyrics, well...let's just say I got a bit fed up with my weekends getting wiped out. I was really happy to see winter vacation and the promise of some genuine free time ahead.

Quite Enough - Yeah, seriously...I did have quite enough of listening to my FIL rant about the tanking economy and the fact that it was "all America's fault". This is one of two "raw-recorded" acoustic numbers. The main guitar part is my Epiphone 6-string acoustic guitar (capo set at 5th fret), and it was another spontaneous test of my Roland/Edirol R-09HR digital recorder that was partly improvised, partly rehearsed. (You can even hear my futon rustling because I was sitting on my bed at the time.) I then added a second guitar part (Epiphone 6-string, normal tuning) doing slap harmonics and backing up the main part during the twin refrains. A third guitar track (Epiphone 6-string, open G tuning) was stuck in to help with the bangs and strums during the bridge. I was originally thinking of doubling the mandolin solo with winds and/or keys, but I decided to leave it "as is". I then topped it all off with five vocal tracks. It's all rather simple and minimal compared with most of the other tracks in this collection, but hey...sometimes less is more.

A lot of people told me they liked this song, so I sent it into that home recording contest, too. It didn't get an award, either (and I'm still waiting for the comments).

Intelligent Evolution - Another unexpected fan favorite. I wanted to experiment with creating different parts of the song not only at different times, but in different places, and putting it all together. The drums, main riff, and string pad were made on my desktop (internet station) computer using a combination of Finale PrintMusic and SynthFont. I then used SynthFont with some soundfonts I'd downloaded off the internet and exported it directly as a wav file. The "evolving break" in the middle (primitive marimba to medieval style to Baroque style to modern orchestral) was made on my work laptop (during one of my breaks) using Sibelius and SynthFont with soundfonts, again exported directly as a wav file. I then put them together on my studio laptop using Sonar and added the guitar, vocal, and incidental keyboard tracks.

Something else I did with this tune was dig out my forlorn guitar stompbox collection rather than rely solely on the digital effects in the PODxt and Sonar. The guitar you hear the most, playing rhythmical riffs in some places and power chords in others, is my SG (bridge pickup, open D tuning) using a model of the Hiwatt DR-101 amp with the preamp set at a modest position (to clean up the sound) and my Zoom 5000 Distortion and Zoom 5050 Choir pedals. I bought those pedals by sheer providence back in 1992, not knowing they'd become valued collectors' items, and I still really like them. (They are often described as the last really good pedals made by Zoom before the latter decided to focus on cheap-sounding multi-effectors, but whatever.) The second most-heard guitar is my Telecaster (neck pickup, standard tuning) using a model of a vintage Fender Deluxe, which naturally has a jangly sound. During the verses I strummed it clean with my BOSS Super Phaser, giving a nice, light background, but during the intense interludes I stepped on my BOSS Metal Zone pedal, giving it a really noisy scream. The third main guitar part, which isn't so distinct till the very end, is my Fender Strat Special HSS (bridge pickup, standard tuning) using the Marshall JCM-800 amp model (again, with the preamp eased off to lighten the drive) boosted with my new Marshall GV-2 Guv'nor Plus and RF-1 Reflector pedals. I set the Guv'nor to a sort of hybrid grunge/British art rock tone and put the Reflector in reverse reverb mode to give me that really cool, ghostly wail. The guitar solo is also the Strat using the same amp model and pedals, but I used the neck pickup, set the Guv'nor in a more classic rock mode, and used the Reflector's spring reverb. I also added a bit of echo using Sonar.

Yes, the song is definitely very 80s-ish. I didn't do it that way on purpose. I guess my 80s upbringing just surfaces from time to time. As for the lyrics, I chose the title "Intelligent Evolution" because of the "evolving" break in the middle and then used that as the theme. Yes, it's very sarcastic, but sometimes it's good to poke fun at stereotypes.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Gold Era: 2002 - 2008

Blog Blunder (2008)
Blog Blunder

1. Rolling Mist
2. Drop It
3. Blog Blunder
4. Nothing
5. Sign Sonata
6. None of It Is True
7. Pattern 17
8. Path to Spring
9. Ancestral Longing
10. Rise of Nations
11. Sakurago
12. Epic pt. I: The Dreamer
13. Epic pt. II: The Realist
14. Epic pt. III: Life Must Go On

Blog Blunder was completed in April of 2008. I consider this to be the end of the Gold Era because it represents the transition from analog-digital to all-digital recording. I dabbled a bit with newly-purchased equipment and, most importantly, direct-to-computer digital recording software, but the 14 tunes on this CD were still all completed using my 8-track MD recorder and conventional studio setup. Now that will all be mothballed as I complete the switch to an all-digital, computer-based format.

The theme of this album just sort of happened. From August of 2007 there were a number of problems at work, many if not most (if not all) of which stemmed from a reckless post I put on my main blog which led to a potentially disastrous scandal. I worked hard to patch things up, but there were still some lingering hard feelings at the workplace. That cast a shadow over some key working relationships and generally brought about a lot of negative feelings that really weren't needed, not to mention communication problems that led to further badness. Eventually things blew over and we were able to get on with life, which allowed me to think about life in general again.

"Blog Blunder" - I don't think I need to talk about what the title track is about. If you've been keeping up with my "Life in the Land of the Rising Sun" blog at all, you should know the story. The main riff guitar is my SG using the Marshall JCM-800 amp model with a bit of delay added. The strummed rhythm guitar is the Telecaster going through a nice, innocent-sounding Vox AC-30.

"Nothing" - As usual, I finished a major production number to find that I only had a few minutes of space left on the disk. That came as a surprise; I'd thought I'd have enough room for two or three more songs. Unwilling to let it go at that, I quickly concocted this little bit of space filler, which really is nothing at all. It was fun to use nothing but my 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars (the former in DADGAD tuning, the latter capoed up several frets) and mandolin, though...not to mention all those avatars of myself. I don't know why it is that my last-minute "space-filler" tunes tend to wind up being some of my best-received works. I almost wonder if I should take it personally! Anyway, here it is.

"Sign Sonata" - I programmed most of this tune while sitting and feeling irritated about the blog blunder issue and related headaches at Ye Olde Academy back in late September. I would have finished it a month ago, but, unfortunately, the little 486DX ThinkPad I'd been using as a MIDI controller in my studio finally died on me. My Roland synth can play MIDI files directly, but doing so restricts it to its (1990s TV game quality) standard MIDI sounds. I didn't want to deal with that, so I waited. Then I recently bought an Edirol MIDI interface that uses a USB connection. That allowed me to plug my work laptop directly into the synth. This song was the test, and it worked really well. Not only did I get full access to my synth's many sounds, but using a more modern computer and eliminating the Yamaha tone generator "middleman" resulted in much smoother performance and none of the rhythmic lags I tended to get before. I then added guitar and additional keyboard parts plus the vocals. (I wanted the vocal part to sound like voices inside one's head, but I may have overdone the usual...)
"None of It Is True" - The rhythm guitar is my Telecaster going through a (modeled) Matchless Chieftain amp with Boss chorus, a combination I really liked with my old "Yamacaster" guitar (and it sounds even better with the Tellie!). This is then joined by my Strat HSS, which was getting lonely. In fact, the Strat HSS was used in fully six different parts! Its main track, the one droning behind the vocals in the third verse and at the end, is using the Line 6 fantasy amp called "Chemical X" boosted with a Big Muff fuzz box. It is joined in the breaks by one doppelganger going through a (modeled) Mesa/Boogie Triple Recto in the right speaker and another (the one bending and gliding) going through a (modeled) Fender Twin Reverb boosted a little with an Ibanez Tube Screamer in the left. The first solo is the Strat HSS using the Twin Reverb again with only a little delay. The second solo is actually a duet between one Strat HSS using a "jumpered" Marshall Super Lead 100 boosted with an octave fuzz box (Hendrix!!!) and another (high octave) going through a Marshall Plexi 45 with delay and Tube Screamer (all modeled, of course). There is only one vocal line, but I switched around with the effectors to make it sound like I traded off.

Okay, you can wake up now.

The lyrics were "ghost written", a technique of mine where I meditate for a while and then write without thinking. I think the message is loud and clear. My subconscious is chewing me out.

"Ancestral Longing" - The kalimba, also known as the thumb piano or "buzz box", is an instrument of African origin. Traditionally, it consists of a wooden cigar box and a series of nails clipped to different lengths. The nails are usually wrapped with small pieces of metal clipped from old cans to act as resonators, giving it its characteristic buzzing sound. The instrument is tuned by adjusting the length of the nails with a pair of pliers. It is played by plucking the nails with the thumbs.

My kalimba is apparently authentic, hand-made in Africa in the traditional manner with traditional materials. However, I obtained it through the ironic means of winning it in a bingo game at a friend's wedding party. I had never used it, and it was looking kind of lonely. This is the first and only time I have recorded with it. It was kind of a spur of the moment piece, but it's nice and serene. My wife really likes this tune, and both it and "Nothing" are short, so I included it here.

"Epic Pt. I: The Dreamer" - I know I've gone beyond the normal count of sample tracks for each album, but this tune has special significance. I actually wrote it during my last year of senior high school. (Yes, all the way back then.) At the time I was making a collection of theme songs for my circle of friends. Most of those tunes have long since been forgotten (especially the ones I tried to forget), but this one has remained a sentimental favorite. At first simply called "Epic: The Dreamer", I imagined it to be a sort of overture for the collection, summing up the group I was hanging out with at the time in one go to be followed by the individual songs afterward. Not long before, one of my science teachers had made the rather cynical statement, "History is made by doers, not by dreamers." That struck a raw nerve in me, so I made "Epic: The Dreamer" as a pointed reply to that.

This is one of few of my originals that I have performed live. At the time of writing I was (admittedly) a member of a hard rock/heavy metal band called "Vital Connexion". (I should add that I've shared songwriting credit with Gordy Tallman, our rhythm guitarist, because he contributed one riff in the middle.) We actually played "Epic: The Dreamer" at a school event. The problem was that, while I had something more like Rush in mind, and the very competent bassist thankfully figured it out, both the rhythm guitarist and the drummer were very much stuck in April Wine/Judas Priest mode. The result was pretty bizarre, and it didn't go over too well with the audience (who much preferred the song "Oregon"). I had a bit more success with the song when I performed it later as an acoustic solo number, playing my 12-string Epiphone, but it still seems cursed somehow. This is my third recording of it, and by far the best, but it still has some problems.

I really like my 6-string Epiphone acoustic guitar, but it is neither an easy nor a forgiving guitar to play. It is built for medium-gauge strings, and the action is quite heavy. It can be murder on the fingers, especially if I'm out of practice. Usually I use it either in open D or DADGAD tuning or capo it up several frets, all of which make it much easier to play. I really wanted it to be the main guitar for "Epic Pt. I", but when I put it into regular tuning it immediately ate my fingers. I grit my teeth and put on light-gauge strings, sacrificing tone quality and throwing off its tuning. That did help a lot, but my rusty fingers were still hard-pressed to stop the strings in some positions. Matters were worsened by the fact that the increased load on my left hand was causing my mild carpal tunnel syndrome to resurface, lessening my finger strength even more. You can hear the result on the recording. Frustrated, I dug out the old 12-string and found it to be in awful condition. The strings were ancient, but I had no time to make a trip to get new ones. Therefore, I kept the rusty 6-string principal guitar track and used the 12-string as it was in a second-guitar role. In some ways the rough sound works with the theme of the song. I'll let you draw your own conclusions. Incidentally, the drum, piano, and string parts were a test of my Roland Sonic Cell using "Finale" both as a programming medium and as a controller. The other parts were all played by hand.

(I keep feeling tempted to try making a version of this song as it sounded when Vital Connexion performed it, i.e. Rush meets April Wine. What do you think?)

A Taste of the Truth (2006)

taste of the truth

1. Two Worlds
2. A Taste of the Truth
3. The Eye of the Beholder
4. A Bite of the Apple
5. Stand Our Ground
6. I Do Not Know the Answer
7. Hero of the Masses
8. Cliche Idiom
9. Day Whatever
10. Thorn in your Heart
11. Give It Time
12. This Breath of Life
13. Talk About Life
14. Knee Deep in Reality
15. Flicker in the Pan
16. Beyond the One You See

In 2006 I finished A Taste of the Truth. I knew Open Halls would be a very hard act to follow, and it was. My guitar playing was at a sort of peak when I made that latter album, and I was worried what effect both the half-year "vacation" that followed and the much slower pace of songwriting and recording after that would have on it. As it turned out, I became pretty rusty. Listening to the 16 tracks on A Taste of the Truth you can probably hear my playing ability coming and going. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's only sort of there..and that's after the many retakes that certain parts in certain songs required. I was getting pretty frustrated for a while until I started putting some quality time into practicing. I had far worse luck with my voice. For a number of reasons, my throat tends to be raw and sore a lot...and the doctor says there's not a whole lot I can do about it. It seems to be getting progressively worse, too. Sometimes I waited till my voice was in good shape before recording vocal tracks. Sometimes I got tired of waiting and just did it anyway, letting the occasional huskiness and shakiness stick. The good side is that I gave a bit more attention to other instruments in my collection, such as my harmonicas. I also put a lot more effort into the songwriting.

Open Halls was unusual in that, unlike most of my albums, it didn't really have any kind of underlying theme (other than the focus on the guitar playing). A Taste of the Truth goes back to my usual conceptual thinking, this time dealing with the dual and sometimes contradictory realities of my "real life" and my "cyberlife" and significant events (and people) in both.

"A Taste of the Truth" - The title track is the second song on the album. I was reading (former Rolling Stones bassist) Bill Wyman's autobiography when I made this. I went back to my "Purple Era" technique of a guitar-based tune with sequencer loop rhythmical backing, but I was using mainly vintage amp models. It all starts with the "Yamacaster" going through a 1960s Fender Bassman, which is what Keith Richards used on a lot of the early Stones tunes that were recorded in the U.S.. (If I'd only had my new Telecaster then...ARRRGH...) The lyrics are based on one current and one former coworker at Ye Olde AcademyTM, both of whom are in dire need of a good dose of reality.

"Stand Our Ground" - Here's one of the acoustic-based tunes. I used a Fishman clip-on pickup on my acoustic guitar. (Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull uses one of those. I wonder if he has the same trouble I do with that crappy built-in cable...) I'm not sure exactly what inspired this, but it seems to be the blows to and changes in my ideals that happened as a result of my expanding blogging.

"Hero of the Masses" - Dedicated with love to Mr. O (the English teacher...not to be confused with Mr. Ogawa the music teacher). If you think I'm exaggerating, at least a third of the lyrics are actual quotes (sometimes translated from the Japanese), and much if not most of the rest is paraphrased from things he actually said. I wrote this tune on the piano and practiced it like crazy, but I didn't have a lot of faith in my ability to play it consistently, so I cheated and programmed it. (The other voice you hear is a characterization of Mr. U, the chief of our English department. Those two men loathe each other.)

"Day Whatever" - I once read that Bill Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins used a Mesa Boogie quad recto amp boosted with a Big Muff fuzzbox on the Siamese Dream album. Well, I had a Boogie dual recto and Big Muff in my PODxt, so I dialed them up, and voila! There was that really intense, aggressive sound. I recorded the rhythm guitar and bass lines, and that's when I realized it actually reminded me a lot of My Bloody Valentine during their You Made Me Realise / Feed Me With Your Kiss era. Naturally, I immediately imagined an MBV-style wailing guitar over the top, so I immediately added one (though with quite a different sound and style from what Kevin Shields/Belinda Butcher used...a lot of which was actually samplers anyway). I also modeled my vocal style a bit after Kevin Shields', though you can actually understand what I'm saying. Also, unlike MBV, I'm not singing about sex, drugs, or suicide; rather, my topic is an all too typical day in the life...

"This Breath of Life" - Well, if you can get past that loooonnnng introduction, this tune is a nice bit of electronica. However, believe it or not, it's not programmed. I started programming it on three different occasions and just couldn't keep my mind on it, so I gave up and played all the parts manually. That naturally means there are some human imperfections here and there. The drums were the only part that I tweaked; I recorded them in real time on the synth and quantized the track to make sure they stayed on beat. The lyrics were "ghost written", a technique I hadn't used since the Spinning Flow album. That means that I meditated for a while and then quickly sketched down the lyrics without really thinking about them. The words just came from the little voice in the back of my mind. (I sometimes come up with the most interesting stuff that way. I'm just thankful that they've all been reasonably coherent thus far; I don't yet have songs about "muffin mix on your thirteenth pantleg", or something like that.)

Open Halls (2004)

open halls

1. A Lesson To You
2. Chase It
3. Voices
4. Open Halls
5. In Your Ranks
6. Silent Demand
7. With My Eyes
8. Be the Light
9. What's On It?
10. Retake
11. Blue Flame
12. Still on the Line
13. Pulled
14. Why These Tears?

I bought my Line 6 PODxt guitar processor while I was working on View from the Tower. After the album was finished, I just spent a lot of time playing around with my new “toy”. Virtually all my attention was going into my guitars, so my playing ability seemed to improve considerably. I never intended to make any real songs, and I certainly didn’t put any effort whatsoever into songwriting, but some of the ideas that came out of my experiments went on disk, and next thing I knew I had another album. That was Open Halls. It was finished in 2004, only a few months after View from the Tower, but it is perhaps my most successful work to date in terms of feedback from listeners. Naturally, it is a very “rocking”, guitar driven, and upbeat work.

”Open Halls” - The title track from the album started out as a joke. I was parodying “pop metal”. I started out by playing (what I thought was) a very cliché riff on my SG through a digital model of a (1980s) Marshall JCM-800 amp boosted by a Rat distortion pedal to the point of insanity. This is then blasted with pure fuzz from my Strat going through a cranked-up (1990s) Boogie dual recto amp (again, a digital model, not the real thing). Then I turned silly into ridiculous by playing the first solo on the SG through a (1960s) Vox amp (i.e. George Harrison) and the second on the Strat through a Soldano (i.e. Eric Clapton). The lyrics are a bit esoteric but very serious, inspired by a really cool Hawaiian girl I met, and who wound up psychoanalyzing me, as I walked through the open halls of Himeji Castle (which, incidentally, is what’s on the cover photo of the album).

”In Your Ranks” - This song was inspired by a former student who was also in the music club. She seemed like a quiet, insecure wall flower when she first joined. A few months later she threw her mask off, went crazy, and practically reinvented our whole music club (for the better, actually)! The music and lyrics reflect that. She was a bit of a handful at times, but I think we all miss that girl.

”What’s On It?” - What? Sonnet?!? That’s right. Sonnets set to music. This song starts with just my jangly “Yamacaster” guitar going through a Matchless Chieftain amp. Then it builds…and builds….

”Why These Tears?” - Can you tell that I’m a schoolteacher? This is probably the only song on the album that I actually put effort into writing instead of just going with whatever came out. It was inspired by two student musicians who suddenly came and tearfully apologized to me for not having played perfectly. I was confused, because I thought they’d done a wonderful job. Kids… Many people have told me they really like this song, so here it is.

View from the Tower (2004)


1. Looking Down
2. Oh, What the Hell...?
3. My Mask
4. Beyanam
The Chronicles of Ous-Galhad:
5. She Was Alone
6. The Visitors
7. Gardeners of Life
8. The Firstborn
9. The Fission / The War
10. Survivors
11. The Ark of Goth
12. Two Flowers
13. I'm Still Young (And I'm Going Strong)
14. Mama (Do You Care About Me?)
15. Hope for the Future?

During the period from 2000 to 2002 I wrote and recorded a lot of material in quick succession. (I also composed and arranged quite a number of things for other people.) By the time Spinning Flow was finished I was pretty much exhausted. Finally, after many months, I dusted off my gear and started playing with it again, recording a couple of tunes inspired by events in my life at the time. As I continued practicing and experimenting, it looked as though the next album was in danger of being terribly cynical; the song inspirations were coming mainly from problem students (and teachers) at work. I squashed that idea like a cockroach. Some song ideas were dumped, others were rewritten. I also dug up some ideas I’d had in mind for a long time, and the result was an album whose principal theme was my own sci-fi/fantasy writing. View from the Tower, finished in early 2004, is kind of a strange work, perhaps difficult for some people to fathom, but I’m rather proud of it.

”My Mask” - Ah…a moody acoustic number! I always like making these, and I wonder why I don’t do it more often. This song is about a significant background character in my sci-fi/fantasy story setting. She’s a talented and famously benign (but very sheltered and repressed) princess, loved by her people (and scorned by her fellow nobles), but she’s actually quite cruel to the people around her because she doesn’t want them to know how messed up she really is inside. I have performed this song live a number of times.

”Beyanam” - Yes, I do make instrumentals sometimes. (Considering my voice keeps getting worse, perhaps I should do more of them…) This is actually a remake; the original version was recorded back in the late 90s, and it featured a wind synth melody (I never quite liked) and some rather sloppy keyboard playing. This time I used a real sax and cleaned up the ensemble work. The tune is meant to describe a scene from one of my stories. (I won’t bother explaining it here, but it involves the princess from “My Mask”, and it’s kind of romantic.)

”The Firstborn” - The main work on View from the Tower is a seven-part rock opera entitled The Chronicles of Ôus-Gal’ad. It is, well, the Creation story of an alien culture. (Yes, you read that right.) In a nutshell, the living spirit of a heavily-forested planet has evolved into a single, giant consciousness. One day it makes contact with beings from the stars, who convince it to seek a material form so they can interact. The three main aspects of its personality, Bann (the animal self), Gôth (the spiritual self), and Gl’iem (the rational self), each manifest into a separate male-female couple, the Firstborn. Everything goes downhill from there… This tune, the fourth movement of the work, introduces the three couples.

”Mama (Do You Care About Me?)” - This is one of the first tunes I recorded for this album, when it was in danger of being dominated by tales of woe inspired by problem students. Guess what inspired this one! (I come across some pretty dysfunctional families in this job…whew…) This seems to be the most-liked song on the album, though I don’t know why. Incidentally, the high strumming you hear during the refrain is a charango in the right ear and a mandolin in the left.

Spinning Flow (2002)

spinning flow

1. After The Storm, A Flow
2. Spin the Circle
3. Innocence, pt. I
4. Innocence, pt. II
5. Proud o' Ya
6. Roundabout Me
7. I Mean to Find
8. Follow the Flow
9. Bond
10. Wakkanai! (2002 version)
11. Wanting
12. Condition: Metamorphosis
13. It's For Me To Know

The period from 1996 to 2001 was one of great turbulence and upheaval in my life, reflected all too well in the four albums I collectively call the “Purple Era”. This album, completed in 2002, was the escape from that, ushering in the current, as yet unnamed period. The “Purple Era” was the sound of someone sitting in a closed room screaming while peering out at the world through the crack in the curtains. In Spinning Flow our hero(?) is still feeling rather churned up inside, but at least he is outside breathing the air and swimming in the water again.

“Roundabout Me” - One beautiful, sunny day as I was driving home from Ye Olde AcademyTM I saw an old man riding a bicycle down a narrow, country road with a big smile on his face. I wondered what sort of tune he might be humming. This lyric-less “song” was the result. The singing is kept very loose and casual by design. Imagine other people coming out of their homes, rice fields, etc. to join the old man’s song as he rides by. (Singing off-key with myself was kind of fun, actually…)

”Bond” - This song was an anniversary present for my wife. It’s not my best singing (some have suggested I should have used a lower octave), but several people have said they like this one, the most important being my wife! The music is partly programmed, partly played by hand.

”(Zenzen) Wakannai!” - The title means, “I don’t understand (at all)!” This is probably my biggest hit to date. Based on a true incident that happened during one of my team-taught lessons, it was originally recorded back in December of 1990. That old version included stupid-sounding, direct-lined guitars, even more stupid-sounding Casio drums, hideous sound quality, sloppy execution, and a lead solo played with numb fingers (since I had no way to heat my flat at the time). Bootleg recordings of it continued to circulate among JET Program expats for years after I’d left that program. This was the long-awaited remake, and it is MUCH better. (I don’t know if tapes of the old one are still going around. If so, I REALLY want to replace them with this version!)

”Wanting” - This tune was actually some last-minute space filler I whipped up and stuck in so the album wouldn’t be quite so short. It also served to help me vent a bit of pent-up frustration. I wrote and recorded it in about two hours. One person has told me they hate this song, but many others have named it as a favorite, so here it is.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Purple Era: 1996 - 2001

Islands (2001)

1. Exile pt. I
2. Exile pt. II
3. Getting On
4. Moonlight Escape / The Dewdrop
5. The Storm / The Dilapidated House
6. Fading Away
7. Tides
8. Sometimes
9. Blue Airplane
10. Virtually Real Life
11. Crazed Obsession
12. Tell Me Now
13. Play In Feeling
14. Sono Aida

In 2001 things finally started to calm some ways but not in others. I was no longer going nuts from emotional turmoil, but a lot of strange things were still happening. Perhaps the most significant event was my getting totally fed up with all the obnoxious gossiping and factionalism in the staff room at work, so I finally packed up the contents of my desk and relocated to a nice, quiet island of my own in the music clubroom. The isolation did a lot for my peace of mind and also boosted my creativity. This album took a bit of time to finish, but I also completed a whole bunch of literary works during the same period. My buying a new Roland synth workstation had a major impact on the music.

Exile Pt. II - This song, the second on the album, describes my flight from "society" into "exile" as well as my realization that someone else of significance had done the same thing. It's a sort of psychic expression of mutual understanding.

Moonlight Escape - The Dewdrop - This is the first movement of a three-part instrumental inspired by a Japanese legend about a warrior who falls in love with a young princess, kidnaps her, and takes her off to what turns out to be a haunted forest...where she winds up being eaten by an ogre. Not a very happy tale, but it is kind of moving.

Blue Airplane - I had a whole bunch of really vivid and totally bizarre dreams during this period. Many of them turned out to be prophetic. At first the "airplane dream" was just a very disturbing puzzle...loaded with symbolism but very unclear. That was the inspiration for this tune. Incidentally, I later figured the dream out, and it was indeed prophetic. I know now that I probably should have called this song "Purple Airplane", but I didn't bother changing the title. Still, though that cute, little plane is no longer buzzing my neighborhood, I'm perfectly happy still to be able to see it flying in the distance...

Crazed Obsession - I wasn't the only one with obsessions during this period. The internet outlet was turning out to be both a means of expression and a way of earning the ire of some people...

Diminished Arcana (2000)

1. Waves & Shallows
2. The Tower & The Sun
3. Till It Comes...
4. Ten of Swords
5. Follow On
6. Guardian Angel
7. Romantic Odyssey
8. Little, Lost Bird
9. Illuminati
10. Object
11. Learn About Life
12. The Final Outcome

Summer vacation in 2000 finally gave me and my overwrought midbrain a much-needed break. It gave me time to calm down and rationalize things. It also woke me up to the fact that other people I knew were suffering far worse than I was. I wound up writing and recording all these songs during a record-breakingly short (and very cathartic) 2-week period. I was spending almost all my time in my studio...and I'd start a new song as soon as I'd finished the one before it. I was both meditating and playing with my tarot cards a lot during this period, which wound up being reflected in both the album cover and the lyrics.

Ten of Swords - One of my longtime close female friends (actually the younger sister of one of my best friends from my school days) sent me a shocking e-mail. She and her husband had always seemed like such a tight and unbreakable couple...but he had suddenly freaked out and left her for reasons that seemed just plain mental. I immediately called her, and we chatted for two hours, after which I made this song. (Incidentally, they wound up divorcing, but she recently remarried and seems much happier now.)

Guardian Angel - One day, when my wife succeeded in prying me out of my studio long enough to help with some housework, I just picked up my alto recorder and started playing this melody. By nightfall this tune was finished. I have actually performed this one live.

Follow On - There are a number of short, reflective, acoustic numbers like this one on Diminished Arcana. I think they are the album's high point.

Object - We get a lot of spoiled rich kids at Ye Olde Academy, and some of them really get on my nerves. No further explanation necessary.

Through the Valley (2000)

1. Purge
2. Stroll
3. The Pool
4. Hr'Voyan Shambas
5. Sudden Realization
6. Whatever Happens
7. Advice?
8. Reassertion
9. Reassurance
10. Murasaki

In 1999 my dream job at Ye Olde Academy suddenly turned into a nightmare. I was assigned, over my protests, to teach classes I had no business teaching (for reasons of politics, I later learned), and everyone knew it. Suddenly I went from being respected by my students to being openly dissed. Parents and other members of the faculty started complaining about me. The principal made a thinly-veiled recommendation for me to resign so he could replace me with someone he thought had better qualifications. Even the fellow members of my grade team suddenly started treating me like an unworthy hanger-on. Just as my self-confidence seemed on the verge of total collapse, however, I discovered that I was getting support from an unexpected source.

I won't bother going into too much detail because it could easily become a small novel. Suffice to say that I came to rely on that support too much, and when it suddenly disappeared (read "was yanked from me by people who had the wrong idea") in February of 2000 I completely fell apart, and so did the events surrounding me. For a while I seriously thought I was losing my mind. It didn't take long for me to regain control, but by then my reputation was pretty much in the gutter, people were trying to "save" me in ways that just pissed me off, my wife was terribly worried and upset, and I wanted more than anything to get marooned on a nice, quiet island somewhere.

Anyway, this album is short but rather emotional.

Stroll - This is the middle segment of a three-part instrumental describing a character from my writing (the same one featured in the View from the Tower album) as she takes a stroll through a sacred forest to an enchanted hot spring pool. I composed the main moving parts on my computer sitting at my desk feeling horribly depressed.

Reassertion - Just when I thought things were becoming rational again, and I was reasserting control over myself and my feelings, the reason for the distress suddenly distressed me again for a completely different and even more distressing reason.

Murasaki - The title means "purple" in Japanese, and it was significant for several reasons. The tune itself was originally inspired by a poem, written back in the 11th century, in which a soldier expresses the agony he feels at seeing the woman he has always loved, and who until then had been his lover, dressed in purple because she has just married the Emperor. The music ends as the poem ends, with a lonely voice moving off into the distance, resigning itself to circumstances it can't hope to change. When I completed this tune I knew it was time to end the album, short though it was, because it was clear to me that that chapter in my life had come to a close. Actually, it hadn't, but it continued in a different way in Diminished Arcana.

Phases of Matter (1998)

1. Three for the Road
2. Snabulus
3. Empty Glory
4. Grey World
5. Spin
6. Waking Cerebrum
7. Goer'dan
8. Guide
9. Technophiliac
10. Prayer of the Age
11. Dizzy Dreamer
12. Tlesca
13. You, Me, We

This album actually began as two separate ones, Phase into Phantasy (1996) and The Soul of the Matter (1998). I was dissatisfied with those two works for several reasons, so I picked them apart and put the salvaged parts together into one CD about the same time I finished Open Halls. The period from 1996 to 1999 was one of many changes. It saw the transition from all-analog production to my first works recorded on my 8-track digital recorder (but, at that time, mastered on analog gear...big mistake). It also saw my first experiments with MIDI programming, something I now take for granted. Unfortunately, I also suffered a lot of technical problems, some of which can be heard in the songs, resulting in things being replaced. As far as my life was concerned, I, my wife, and our new baby daughter had just moved into the little house next door to the in-laws. I had also just started my promising, new career at Ye Olde Academy. I also started getting more and more into spiritualism during this period, combining elements of Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Native American shamanism, and occult mysticism. It seemed like my whole world was reinventing itself, but I had reason to be optimistic despite the looming millennium and all the darkness that it would portend...

Three for The Road - This instrumental was the first tune on Phase into Phantasy and is now the opener for Phases of Matter. I think this is some of my best experimentation with the limited guitar gear I had at the time.

Grey World - The mood wasn't always jovial. Sometimes it seemed like everywhere I looked the assholes were winning out over the good people. Here's a healthy bit of cynicism to express that.

Tlesca - Some have said this is the best tune I've ever made. I'm not sure I agree...especially with that crappy guitar opening (on a cheap, pickup-equipped acoustic run through analog gear that munched up the sound...and I didn't bother doing a retake when I botched it). Still, it is a cool tune once it gets going. It also has by far the strangest story behind it of any musical work I've made. Maybe someday I'll tell it. BTW, this tune apparently got some airplay in Bangalore, India thanks to a friend of mine there who promoted my work.

You, Me, We - And here my 1980s Britpop influence (thanks to my wife) becomes readily obvious. I don't care what anyone else says; this song is still my personal favorite of all time even though it's very simple and repetitious. There are only two guitars (plus bass), but I used some multitrack trickery to make it sound like there are three guitars. There is also a bit of track cutout due to equipment failure (in the master so I can't fix it unless I totally redo it). The lyrics are "ghostwritten", i.e. I meditated for a while and then quickly sketched the words automatically. I'm not sure exactly what it was about, but it might have had something to do with something that was starting to happen at the school (which wound up inspiring the Through the Valley album).

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Grey Era: 1996 - 1999

The so-called “Grey Era” (yeah, yeah...English spelling) actually ran concurrent with the early part of the “Purple Era”, but I consider it distinct for a number of reasons. The period from 1996 to early 1999 was a time of many changes in my life, but it was also one of exploration. The storm and stress that would follow from the end of 1999 hadn’t started yet, and I was doing a lot of thinking and experimenting. I was also heavily involved with sci-fi / fantasy as a gamer, a reader, and an author. Inevitably, that fit of whimsical creativity found its way into my music.

The Confederation Suite (1999)

1. Fyllven (Aragonese)
2. Texture 12 (Arcadian)
3. Commander's March (Besteeng)
4. Vien Fien (Dubian)
5. Hr'Ankith (Ergothei)
6. Dama-den-billjwak (Farbett)
7. Exercise Routine #751 (Fasion)
8. Suei'Karme (Foldorian)
9. Tupar - suHem (Gerlangian)
10. Thock-Charrgh (Ibitonian)
11. A Cek Tear (Lybolt)
12. 42034 (Zorlan)
13. Inyataicfiues (Ehrlathagi)

Ever since I was in the third grade I’ve been steadily developing the “Impasse Universe”, a sci-fi world that has served as the setting for most of my fiction writing, artwork, and a role-playing game that I and several people played in my college days (and later). I got to wondering what the ethnic / traditional music of some of the alien cultures would sound like, and this album was the result. There are a lot of races and cultures in the Impasse Universe, so I stuck with the “good guys”, the twelve major powers of the Confederation plus a conquered former member. This is undoubtedly my most artistic work…and the most bizarre. The samples I picked are among the “safest”.

"Exercise Routine #751 (Fasion)" – Everyone seems to like this one best. Picture a whole group of uniform-clad midgets with large, bald heads performing a workout routine while a leader barks out commands.

"Tupar - suHem (Gerlangian)" – This isn’t necessarily a fan favorite, but I’ve always liked it for artistic reasons. The Gerlangian nation is divided into two castes, the rustic Medwhonis, who live rather simple lives with very little technology, and the urban Gerlang, who spend all their lives sealed within their awesomely high-tech city-ships. I think you can guess who rules whom (rather oppressively). The two classes have very different languages and cultures, and the music represents this. Can you tell which is which?

"A Cek Tear (Lybolt)" – The Lybolt culture was created by one of my friends (Dewkid, to be exact), and he told me their music sounded like “Enya without lyrics” with an electric harp as the principal instrument (a la Andreas Vollenweider). This seems to be another fan favorite.

"Inyataicfiues (Ehrlathagi)" – This also seems to be a bit of a fan favorite, which surprises me. The Ehrlathagi were once the mightiest empire in the region, but at the very start of the War a combination of surprise, deception, and betrayal led to their destruction. Now about half their former nation is occupied by (and/or collaborating with) the enemy, and the remainder is serving the Confederation as a protected subject. They’re not too happy about that. This poem / song is in the Ehrkiss language. “Inyataicfiues” would translate as “(We) will have our revenge.” (Incidentally, making all the different languages for the Impasse Universe, and trying to make them either grammatically distinct or show clear linguistic devolution, has been one of the greatest pleasures for me…as well as a cause of serious headaches…).

Andy’s Arda (1997)

1. Kander the Beloved
2. Albruin, Father of Wisdom
3. Lucas the Luckbringer
4. Marden, Angel of Wrath
5. Phaltos, Father of Life
6. Drandir, Lord of Fates
7. Ral Andorak, the DeathSinger
8. Thrambral, Father of Lies
9. Tarantalus, the DarkWeaver
10. Daranon
11. On a White Horse
12. Fellstrike

My friend and former coworker Andy was the “dungeonmaster” for an AD&D campaign we were playing at the time. The setting was a fantasy world of his own creation, “Arda” (which, incidentally, is the same name for “Earth” that J.R.R. Tolkien used in The Silmarillion). He had put a lot of work into its development, and it was quite extensively detailed. I haven’t heard from him in a while, but last I heard he was still writing novels and short stories based on his Arda setting.

The album mainly consists of a suite I made inspired by the nine deities of Arda, each representing one of the ethical alignments of AD&D (i.e. good vs. evil, law vs. chaos). For the sake of balance, each movement is close to equal length. Musically they are quite different.

"Albruin, Father of Wisdom" – Albruin represents Neutral Good, the alignment of enlightenment and unconditional love. I always pictured him as being sort of Buddha-like, so I made this tune meditative.

"Drandir, Lord of Fates" – Drandir represents Chaotic Neutral, the alignment of aimlessness, random fate, and, well, insanity. That pretty much sums it up. My wife still says this is her absolute favorite of all my works. I’m not sure whether to take that as an insult or not.

"Thrambral, Father of Lies" – Thrambral represents Neutral Evil, the alignment of profit without principle (i.e. pure greed). He is mainly the deity worshipped by thieves, spies, and assassins, so I gave this tune a sense of sneakiness…sort of a “what’s that slinking in the shadows?” kind of thing.

"Tarantalus, the DarkWeaver" – Tarantalus represents Chaotic Evil, the alignment of totally unrepressed, wanton desire. Not to give evil an undue balance here, but this has to be one of the most disturbing pieces I’ve ever created. Tarantalus is the only one of the Nine that actually lives on Arda itself. He is imprisoned in a deep vault beneath a mountain, where he speaks in the dreams of the unwary, cultivating their sympathy, tempting them, corrupting them, and, hopefully, enticing the powerful among them to work toward his release. The theme of this tune is sinister voices speaking in the dark depths of one’s consciousness, both to plead for compassion and to twist the soul (i.e. I had fun with my Korg sampler).

The Hero’s Way (1996)

1. Fanfare
2. Hergoth National Anthem
3. Ganneth
4. Mutual Awareness
5. Call to Arms
6. Under Their Feet
7. Behold Your Son
8. The Temple
9. The Hero's Way
10. Oasis
11. 200 Years (of Loneliness)
12. Curtain Call - Yangae National Anthem
13. Our Little One
14. Educate the Lower Class

1. Brighter Than Ever
2. School Forbidden
3. The Chase
4. Solilo-Ro'Kister
5. Brighter Than Ever (reprise)
6. The Tempest
7. Interlude
8. Of Love and Vengeance
9. Star-Crossed Lover
10. Dilemma
11. Finale
12. News of the New Cycle
13. Epilogue
14. The Hero's Way/Star-Crossed Lover (reprise)

The Hero’s Way is a two-disk set. The entire album is a rock opera that I wrote back in my college days. I was always very proud of it, so it was one of the first works that I recorded once I first got my home studio up and running. The original version, recorded in 1990, was a 100-minute cassette tape album that, well, sucked…but it still had lots of energy. This is the remake. It is a lot better than the 1990 version, but I’m still not satisfied; the quality of the production still pales in comparison with my more recent works. Maybe someday I’ll try it again...

The story is set in the Impasse Universe. Part I tells about how a reclusive (and rather arrogant) Hr’Goth poet named Ganneth finally fell in love only to have his world invaded, conquered, and devastated by a race called the Yangae. His parents are killed during the failed partisan rebellion. His lover, an initiate of the Temple, convinces him to pledge himself to the Way of the Hero (kind of like Jedi only much, much nastier). To make a long story short, he passes initiation, trains, becomes the greatest of the Heroes, leads a great rebellion, fails miserably, winds up imprisoned in the Temple, loses his priestess lover (to suicide), and finally flees into obscurity. For more than two centuries he wanders his planet, nameless and shattered (and made sadly immortal by his Hero powers). Part II tells the story of how a family of the Yangae “dirt-diggers” caste, little more than slaves, educates their daughter Lu’Teske in their secret reading room, a punishable offense. (In those days Soil Tenders weren’t allowed to read.) They are finally caught and executed by a vigilante militia. Lu’Teske escapes and becomes a Triask (entertainer/prostitute) using the street name “U’te”, whereupon after a lot of drama she winds up being taken on by a perverse Noble as a sort of toy. They travel to the world of the Hr’Goth, and the Noble promptly ditches her. Yangae colonists there don’t treat her very well. Guess who winds up coming to her rescue? In Part III Ganneth and U’te wind up becoming a very unlikely couple. Unfortunately, when U’te restores his self-confidence he immediately sets out to start the rebellion again. He finally succeeds in setting the stage for the liberation of his people, but not before killing both himself and his lover in one gigantic, crust-ripping thermal explosion. The end.

Many of the tunes are long, and they tend to segue into each other. That made track designation very difficult. Sometimes I’d have to chop one tune up into two or three or four because of changes in tone…or to keep an individual track from being more than fifteen minutes long. That also made it difficult for me to select tracks to post here. I chose ones that listeners have said they liked, but some of them are only excerpts of much longer works.

"The Heros Way" – The priesthood won’t accept just anybody to become a Hero. They do their damnedest to convince would-be candidates to change their minds. Ganneth doesn’t, he succeeds in becoming the greatest of the Heroes…and accomplishes nothing but getting a few cities nuked as a warning for him to behave himself.

"Oasis" – The Yangae know they can neither defeat nor hold Ganneth, so they demand that he submit to imprisonment in the Temple (or they’ll nuke more cities). He agrees, but doesn’t exactly follow the rules. He and his priestess lover keep sneaking out to the gardens to be together. It’s all a bit hard for her to take, though, and she finally loses it. All Ganneth gets is one last note (a suicide note, actually). That sends him fleeing off into obscurity for two centuries.

"Brighter Than Ever" – This song introduces the performer/prostitute U’te, formerly the orphaned Soil Tender girl Lu’Teske. She entertains men of higher castes and thus earns her living, but her “family” is still the dregs of society, and she does her best to help support them.

"Star-Crossed Lover" – Ganneth, now fully revived, has gone off to fight the Yangae again, leaving his Yangae prostitute lover U’te all alone. This is her soliloquy. I used a unique tuning and playing style to try to emulate a musical instrument used by lower-caste Yangae. I only wish I had a female vocalist on hand…my voice does NOT suit the part!

Only four tracks out of two CDs is hardly a good representation of the work (and seems like kind of a waste), but…oh, well. I’ll leave it at that.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Red Era: 1994 - 1995

In 1993 my JET Program(me) contract hit the three-year limit, and my tour of duty with the Ibaraki public school system came to a merciful end. That's when the real adventure began. Ironically, I had been promised a job at Ye Olde Academy, but it turned out to be a hoax just a couple of weeks before both my JET contract and my visa were due to expire. Needless to say, both I and my fiance (now fortunately my wife) were at wit's end. Then, like a miracle, I was given a surprise phone call by a fellow JET participant saying, "I know you're going to be working at [Ye Olde Academy], but just in case there's a change, my husband's school is looking for a new teacher." That started my stint with the English school owned and run by Kashima Oil Company. Ironically, I vowed never to have anything to do with Ye Olde Academy ever again. I never dreamed I'd wind up working there on a more or less permanent basis four years later!

Life from late '93 was a very different animal from before. The intrusive and overprotective yoke of the public school system was gone. I was living in a real flat which I had chosen myself rather than a government-subsidized (read "old and crappy") dormitory. I had a car which I was able to drive when and where I liked without need of secrecy or a guilty conscience. Lower income meant I had to be a bit more careful, but at least I was fully in charge of my own life.

The music I produced during the late '93 to '95 period reflects the freedom and optimism I was feeling at the time. Of course, there was also my getting married in late '94...:-)

Truth vs. Fame (1995)

1. No Lyrics
2. Just a Game
3. I'll Be There
4. PUD
5. Pumpkin?
6. Sample Basket Case
7. Left to Blow Away
8. The Last Dragon
9. Truth of You
10. The Princess
11. The Ballad of Helpful Randy
12. Brain-Dead Pop Song
13. Almost There
14. And I Pity You

This album basically picked up where Acerola Cola????!? left off. Mostly cheerful and at times downright silly, Truth vs. Fame nevertheless had an underlying theme of uncertainty, particularly the difficulty in resolving what one wants to be with what one should be. In fact, I was having a bit of trouble reconciling my newly-inspired spiritual concerns with material realities. Things were happening in the world that didn't make it any easier. This is probably the last all-analog album I made that I really feel good about.

"No Lyrics" - The album starts with this nice, naive bit of cheerfulness. I've always liked this tune for some reason.

"The Last Dragon" - This "philosophical fantasy" song was actually written by Don (Snabulus), though he refuses to take any credit for it. One day back in our early college days I was playing my guitar, and he suddenly started naming off chords at random. I played them, and next thing we knew we had this song. Quite a prolific poet at the time, he wrote the lyrics, too. I have performed this tune live many times, usually as a solo acoustic number.

"Truth of You" - Many people have named this as a favorite. The lyrics speak for themselves...the whole theme of the album. Incidentally, this is the first song in which I experimented with running a single guitar through multiple tracks, each using different effects, for a layered sound. ("You, Me, We" on the Phases of Matter album is an even better example of this...and is stylistically similar.)

"The Ballad of Helpful Randy" - One day Andy (as in Andy's Arda) handed me a page of lyrics and said, "Can you make a song out of this?" Apparently he'd heard it in a dream or something. I made the song, and it's loads of fun!

From the Bottom Drawer (1995)

1. Kinetic Oscillation
2. Man Killer
3. Not Just White
4. Seymour Deth
5. Summer Camp Song
6. Green Visions
7. Drill Sergeants
8. Another Man's Woman (for Another Man's Eyes)
9. Fog on the Horizon
10. Another Day
11. Pros and Cons of Love
12. A Bit o' Sentiment
13. Homebrewer's Lament
14. Oregon
15. Glass Walls
16. Freestyle

Right after I finished Acerola Cola?????!? I realized I had several notebooks full of songs I'd written in my high school and college days but had never really used. Then I had an idea: why not record some of those "golden oldies"? In fact, why not make an album dedicated to them?

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was fun to make, but...this is definitely NOT one of my brighter moments. Part of the problem was that it was all so rushed. Had I taken a bit more time (and used a slower tempo on some of the tunes), well...maybe I should try again. Hey! Why don't I...(QUICK!!!! SOMEBODY SLAP ME!!!!!)

"Another Man's Woman" - (I'll take these songs in reverse chronological order so you won't run away after the first one.) "Another Man's Woman" was written during my first year at Oregon State, though the tune was actually cobbled together out of recycled bits of much older ones. I had a bad habit of falling for women I had no chance with (while ignoring the ones that were interested in me). In this case one of my friends (Don Snabulus, actually) tried to fix me up with a really cool girl he knew, but she was only interested in friendship. You see, she only had an eye for big guys in denim...who invariably treated her like crap. It was bloody frustrating. Incidentally, the original title of this song was "Big Guys in Denim", and the chorus was different, but someone recommended that I change it so no one would get the wrong idea about my sexual orientation.

"Seymour Deth" - Do you know my pal Seymour? (He often comments on my regular blog.) Well, in our late high school days he came up with a RPG character named (wait for it...) Seymour Deth. He was an instant hit, and he remained famous clear up until...well, until now! A mutual friend of ours named CH tried to write a theme song for the Seymour Deth character which was corny and portrayed him in totally the wrong way. CH handed Seymour (the person) the lyrics and cheerfully asked, "What do you think? Huh? Huh?" Seymour looked at the lyrics, made a face, and quietly threw the paper on the fire. (I'll never forget the look on poor CH's face!) I took that as a challenge to try to make a better theme song. This is the result, and to this day I have never showed Seymour the lyrics! Incidentally, Seymour played bass clarinet in high school, so I put a bass clarinet solo (played on my wind synth) in the middle.

"Oregon" - The idea for this song popped into my head while I was hiking in the Cascades. It is one of very few songs from my high school days that I've played live at all, let alone several times. BTW, the phrase "Come here to visit, but for God's sake don't come here to live," was originally said by former Oregon governor Tom McCall. Later governors tried to scoop kitty litter over it in order to promote economic growth (read "sell us out to the Californians"), but I hold that statement dear.

"Man Killer" - WARNING: CONTAINS PROFANITY (AND IS JUST PLAIN STUPID). Please just give this a cursory listen and then forget the whole thing. When we were in the 9th grade, I (on guitar), Pa've (on bass), and Don Snabulus (on lead vocals) formed something that could maybe be called a band. We went through several name changes, and a number of other members came and went, most of them drummers. I used my father's folk guitar until I finally got my first electric. Pa've first used a very cheap bass, and then he started building his own...all running through amps which were also of his own construction. Don just sang as best he could. In a word, we sucked, and we knew it, but we had a good time. We jammed on songs by Judas Priest and a few other groups that were popular at the time, but we also enjoyed coming up with our own originals. The best were ones that Pa've and I co-wrote (and he still refuses to give me permission to record), but we each had plenty of our own. Most of them have vanished into the mists of time. This one, one of my first, was (unfortunately) notorious enough to remain in memory. It was dedicated to (surprise, surprise) a girl that had really pissed me off. I present it here only for the sake of historical novelty. I recorded it the way I originally imagined it all those years ago...and the opening guitar sound is an approximation of what that Guyatone amp I used in my high school daze days sounded like when cranked up. I only wish our band had sounded half that tight...

Acerola Cola????!? (1994)

1. A Tatami Tale
2. End of the Day
3. Yours Is Mine
4. Let's Be Greedy
5. What You're Thinking
6. Mo!
7. Mid-Morning Mantra
8. Yakisoba
9. Inclination
10. Radio ZRDO
11. Unhip Alternative
12. Acerola Madrigal
13. What's In This Stuff?

One day, during one of my many visits to Kashima Shrine, I was walking by a row of vending machines when something strange caught my eye. One of the machines included, among other things, a plain, burgundy-colored can labeled "Acerola Cola". I had never heard of such a thing, and it seemed too bizarre to pass up. I tried it, and it tasted, well, like cola with acerola berries. Not only did I never see it again after that, but no one I know here in Japan has ever even heard of it. Some of them insist to this day that I imagined the whole thing.

This album is probably the all around best from my analog period, though it does have its flaws. There's plenty of humor and Moody Minstrelish sarcasm to be found here, but there are also hints of sentiment and romantic melancholy as this was the time my fiance and I were trying to convince her father to let us get married...and debating eloping if he didn't.

"What You're Thinking" - I was heavily involved in various music-related activities in addition to my home studio. My job also required long hours and sometimes a long commute. That didn't make my fiance very happy. She often complained that I had no idea what she was thinking or feeling. I wrote this song to show that I did. Basically, I'm singing her thoughts.

"Mo!" - Japanese, women in particular, often cry, "MO!!!!!" when they're frustrated, irritated, or exposed to something very silly. This tune is definitely very silly.

"Let's Be Greedy" - For a few years after coming to Japan I continued to receive an alumni newsletter from Oregon State. The early '90s was the time of the big property tax controversy in Oregon (ominous low string power chord) that led to the infamous Measure Five (loud diminished 7th chord). It amounted to an 80% property tax cut implemented in stages over five years with no alternate funding provided. Since OSU and all of Oregon's public schools received most of their funding from property taxes, it was a matter of grave concern to the university. No surprise, therefore, that the opinion pages of the alumni paper were constantly flooded with comments concerning Measure 5 and its projected effects. However, since OSU has always tended to be rather conservative, the overwhelming majority of the commentors were very much in favor of the tax cut. Some of the things that were said made sense. A lot, however, was a load of short-sightedness, apathy, naivete, and just plain hypocrisy that defied all logic. (One of my "favorites" was a woman who said something along the lines of, "If property taxes continue at this rate, I might have to give up one or both of my vacation homes. Why should I have to change my lifestyle just to keep schools and parks running?" Yippee-ya-yay, God bless the Land of the Free!) In this song I quoted a little, paraphrased a lot, and enjoyed a bit of artistic license, but it's not far from what people were actually saying! It was fun to make, at any rate...and I'm almost thankful I was here instead of there, so I didn't have to deal with it!

"Radio ZRDO" - This is by far the most famous work on the album and one of my most memorable recordings ever. A spoof radio program was something I'd always wanted to try. It contains a number of inside jokes, so don't worry if you don't understand. I'm seriously tempted to make a full Radio ZRDO album or something. Who knows?

"Acerola Madrigal" - Alright...people seem to like this album, so I'll toss in one more track. Something I used to do a lot in my analog days was spontaneous composition. I'd record five minutes or so of metronome click track without any plan in mind. Then I would improvise a series of segments of melody or rhythm and mix it all down onto one "root track". Once that was done, I'd listen back, decide what to do with each part, and flesh it all out using the other tracks...and a lot of "ping-ponging". (Sometimes I'd have as many as 16 separate parts going at once...on one 4-track recorder!) "Acerola Madrigal" is such a piece. I started with that first recorder melody and ad-libbed from there, tossing in the "Acerola Cola" theme on occasion. Since it's an instrumental, I made heavy use of my wind synth, which I rarely touch anymore. Several people have told me they like this one, and I figure it's a good example of my spontaneous composition from this period, so here it is.