Matt Stevens – acoustic guitarist from England, internet technology use innovator and known to my fans if not before then at least from that track of his I remixed – one again had an internet-based idea: “ok, let’s do a chord progression on twitter. Let’s start with Em, what is next?”.
The resulting “chord progression that twitter made” (or #twitterchords for short) is documented here, and with it came Matt’s idea that everyone should contribute something, and again, I had to do so.
About the song and how it became to be.
When I first looked at the progression, I immediately thought “death metal”! So why death metal, you may ask? A chord progression of Em/Em7 – Am – FM7#11 – CM7#11 does not look to be intended for musicians to whom by running cliché mostly a FM7#11 is simply “F”. I’ll comment more on that cliché later (or rather, how it fits for punk rock, but rather not for (progressive) death metal), but the reason I thought “death metal” was that for quite some time, I had wanted to do a death metal song, even start a death metal group, but never got through to it. If you’re familiar with most of my stuff from recent years, this may come as a surprise, but the fact is that I’ve been listening to metal (with interruptions) for almost 25 years by now, had always liked the harder sub-genres more, and recently been intrigued by the progressive subsubgenre (as exemplified by e.g. Maudlin of the Well).
So how does one who has never in his life written a metal song, and who as actually in this millenium never composed a song by sitting down and writing it down (not that I didn’t learn this properly at the academy, it just…never came up recently), go about composing and recording a metal song?
The first step was to keep the ancillary conditions in plain view, and then let the creative process take its course if and when it hit me, so I wrote down the chord progression in my living room/music room with table and sofa:
And then, whenever I felt like it (we’re around early/mid March by now), I just would play around these chords on my K2600XS keyboard.
After a while, I had found a beautiful melody to go with the progression, a second version of it in the parallel scale, a second theme and a coda…but it sounded like music for a jazz piano trio. Well then, so be it. The tune was nice, and I decided to go with it.
Now I am by no means a highly qualified pianist, but this is nothing compared to how much I’m a dilettante at playing bass or even drums. So when I went to multitrack this at home (the drums, mind you, being samples triggered by pads), this didn’t sound right. However, this didn’t only have to do with my limitations, but also with problems of having a jazz track played with overdubs – short version: this doesn’t work.
For the same reason (and also because I didn’t finde a drummer), I decided against working together with people I found on twitter and on Café Noodle (that new beta-stage musicians’ network by Matt Stevens) by sending files around. Next attempt: get in contact with my old Eclectic Blah drummer, Ralf, and see if he wanted to do it, not before asking Matt for an extension of the submission deadline until after Easter (we’re around end of March by now).
Ralf was mildly interested, but couldn’t spare time over the Easter weekend. Back at start…
It was about that time that I noticed that during copying the chord progression from Matt’s blog to my whiteboard, I had mixed up two chords. From my functional and tonal analysis on this progression (see below), it already was clear that CM7#11 – FM7#11 – Em made more sense than the correct version, unless you see the CM7#11 as a Bsus4b9 (which resolves wonderfully into Em), but with strong influences from IDM (where people tend to like to use the supersemitionium substitution of the dominant chord), I was more happy to stick with that falsified version I had written down – true accident or freudian slip?
So back at the start: once again, death metal! Now as I said, those complex chords don’t fit in at first with metal clichés, but only at first glance: while hard rock and punk rock is usually dominated by those power chords (which in fact aren’t chords in the first place, rather intervals with one note doubled one octave above), this differs in the heavier branches of metal: guitarists usually play figures of single notes, which together with the bass guitar define harmonies by the scales they’re built on, similar to approaches in modal jazz. So by using the typical two guitars-one bass setup, one is able to set up even those complex harmonies.
I went on to compose, record and mix the song single-handedly in a tour the force spanning the Easter weekend. Starting out with guide tracks (samples of guitars and virtual bass guitar through Line6’s POD Farm) and sequenced drums with soft quantisation, I would then add the proper instruments: fretless bass guitar for the soft part of the guitar solo cascade, the melodica in the coda, multi-tracked acoustic guitars and of course various vocals.
Listening to the song, we start out by a pedal pad of various synthesizers (Kurzweil K2600XS, Yamaha FS1R, Korg Wavestation KEX) and single distorted guitar notes (one of them played with ebow) based on the chord progression, while toms (through OhmBoyz delay) intonate the theme for the jazz song I had written.
We then start off with the heavy part (including short shifts into 5/4), before the first verse of grunt vocals starts. The chorus is a two-part harmony (double-tracked) alternating with bandbpass-telephone-style vocals (through SSL’s free Listen Mic Compressor plugin) and added Cubase ModDelay on the last note (and a switch from ternary to quarternary feel for the chorus) before the second verse leads us into the soft guitar solo (3/4), with acoustic guitars, a soft soaring electric guitar, dub-style delay on the snare (Lexicon Vortex) and Mellotron strings (thanks to leisureland for his mellotron samples!). We then launch into the heavy part of the guitar solo (with a BPM change); two guitarists are trading parts here, similar to many solo parts from Judas Priest’s 80s works (e.g. “The Sentinel”). Actually, here you find the only part in this song not done by me: one of the guitar parts (the first one, right in the stereo spectrum) is Jan Kühner on “Fostex Guitar”. I borrowed and adapted a term coined by engineer Bob Stone, who when working with Zappa on his “Shut Yp And Play Yer Guitar” albums, would use the term “Ampex Guitar” for guitar parts which were played back from an (Ampex) tape machine into a wholly different song and context. Here, a guitar solo by Jan, originally played at Eclectic Blah’s “A Triptoed Opening” concert back in 2004 (and recorded on a Fostex harddisc recorder), was reused, making heavy use of the VariAudio feature included in Cubase 5, my DAW solution.
Off to the final rendition of the chorus, before a heavy drum fill brings us into the coda – which takes just the acoustic guitars from the soft guitar solo, and fading out, another melodica solo (with just a hint of an Eventide Eclipse). Yes, I’m overusing the melodica in my music, but then, so what?
Ah, them lyrics! It’s Bavarian, in case you wonder (which might just make it the first Bavarian Progressive Death Metal tune ever), and basically without any deeper meaning. “Saustoi” means “pig pen”, so you please figure out the rest ;).
Mastering was then kept to a minimum – the typical chain of a very gentle and slow compressor, parametric EQ and just the faintest hint of limiter, before samplerate conversion, dithering and noiseshaping is applied. As usual, the track is far from smashed sonically, with a lot of microdynamics even in the very dense passages and huge loudness differences between loud and soft parts…but that’s just the way my music should sound!
All in all – a very successful enterprise from my point of view, simply because it once again gave me the possibility to get more familiar with my production environment – whether you (or anybody) like it may be another story, but I can live with that fact.
For now, enjoy – and comment – and tweet!