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.

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