Sunday, April 19, 2009

If you think there's no way you could ever like Sunn 0)))...

So, you've been listening to Black Sabbath for as long as you can remember. Pentagram and Bedemon are old news to you. Lately you've been really into Electric Wizard, you dabble in bands like Pelican, and you even get into ambient soundscapes like Explosions in the Sky. You probably would like Sleep, Moss, and pretty much any band whose name and logo connotes a dark stagnation. You may even peruse the Southern Lord website and sample their selection of dark black/death/doom metal.

So when your friend tells you, "Man, you would love Sunn 0)))!" you go ahead and give it a shot. Their image is certainly crucial (see picture above), but what is this "music" you're hearing? You can't understand why people think this is so amazing. All you hear are some dudes getting ready to play a song, but never getting there. If you don't drugs, you imagine that anyone enjoying this music MUST be. And if you do drugs, you imagine the people listening to Sunn 0)) must be doing better drugs than you. In the end, you probably think to yourself, "I could do this shit!" Well, unknowingly you've hit on the secret to really appreciating drone...


Some of the most powerful moments I've ever had playing music came when I sat in front of my amp and just droned out. Just listening to Sunn 0))) isn't enough. You can experience the full effect if you're fortunate enough to catch one of their live shows, but that can be quite difficult if you don't live near a relatively large city. So, here are my instructions for creating your own drone music.

Now, you may not think you can get a good drone out of a combo amp with a 10" cone, but you would be very surprised. Here's what you need to do. Turn your pregain up all the way, turn your bass to 10, turn your highs to 0, and use your mids for tone control, but try not to let them get much higher than 5 or 6. If you have a Presence knob, turn it all the way down. As for any other weird tone control, basically turn them to whatever is the bass heavy extreme. Select the neck pickup on your guitar, and turn down the tone knob if you have one. Now for the most important part, tune your guitar to open C (feel free to experiment with the three higher strings), and if you're feeling adventurous, try to get your guitar down a minor third to open A. Plant yourself directly in front of your amp and turn it up to a decently loud volume. Feel free to wear ear protection and turn it up all the way.

Now you're ready to drone. Turn up the volume on your guitar and lightly strum an open C chord. Let it ring. Let it feed back. Let it get in your head, in your body. Close your eyes and strum again when you feel the need. Experiment with consonances and dissonances and the feedback they create. You'll start to notice beats occurring within the drone, a slower beat for a consonance, and a faster beat for a dissonance. Start timing your strums with these beats. After about 5 or 10 minutes you'll be lost.

I have literally sat in front of my amp for hours exploring the bottomless drone. Anyone familiar with yoga, Tai Chi, or any kind of meditation will understand the feelings that overcome their body.

If you have a half stack to experiment with, it will be even better. If you have some way to run your guitar signal to two amps, I HIGHLY recommend it. You can change the tones on each amp and create sounds that will blow your mind. Once I ran my guitar through my Crate half stack as well as my bass stack via my Digitech Whammy pedal. I put my bass amp slightly out of tune with my guitar amp and sat right between the two. It was kind of a stereo chorus effect that create some amazing frequency interactions. If you have the know-how and the equipment, toying with the phase of the two amps would be pretty amazing too.

So, that's pretty much all you need to know. If you still don't "enjoy" listening to Sunn 0))), that's fine, but now you probably understand their objectives a little better. One doesn't put on a Sunn 0))) record at the beach driving in a jeep with the top down and the doors off. Listen to Sunn 0))) while going to sleep, reading HP Lovecraft, getting an MRI, driving down a dark country road in the middle of the night, driving through a tonado, performing a Walpurgisnacht ritual, etc... Their music elicits specific emotions and physical states. If you can get in tune with them you will have some of the most profound musical experiences possible with current technology.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Paul Gilbert: Infinity's Affinity For The Infinitely Great: Shredder Of The Technodrome

Shredders are an interesting bunch and at their essences, entirely enigmatic. Some exude this characteristic in their confounding technical proficiency, most others in their mercurial idiosyncrasies, and still more in their utterly perplexing compositional techniques, better defined by a lack thereof. The thing I really get off on however is the infrequency of the truly great guitar virtuoso. As has been the case with the virtuoso performers of old (ie Liszt, Chopin, Paganini to name but a few) the ethereal quality of greatness is maintained and preserved by the almost unattainable skills required to achieve it. Therefore the proverbial quest for the holy grail of shredders is one that is continually stimulating, insanely difficult, and oh so gratifying (*insert female orgasm joke here*).

One of the best aspects of metal if not it's premier selling point, is the incomparable, musically educated fan base it possesses. Unfortunately as a member of this elite community I know its members are not the easiest or greatest in number to find. So when someone asks me what kind of music I'm in to, chances are they are not musically equipped to receive my answer... and HOLY SHIT is that a loaded question. What these people don't know is they've simultaneously asked me to explain the evolution of the electric guitar and its technical innovators, the concept of the romantic era virtuoso, and how all of these things are related. So when I ignorantly and concisely reply "guitar instrumental or guitar-centric/virtuosic music" I get what I deserve by way of a series of uninformed follow up questions. Let me back up for a second. I am in no way intending to sound snobbish or pretentious in my inclined taste for metal and the intellectual relationship I have with it, I just don't know how to talk about a genre that spawned out of a pursuit to develop rock musicianship to it's most technically accomplished potential, without attempting to talk about the things in academia it draws from. I love it! and I love sharing it with people who want to know, regardless of their background in music. In all honesty there are TONS of things about music theory that, even with a (month's pending) BA in music, I don't pretend to understand.

Typically in one of these conversations about the music I listen to I get a response that will finally make the title of this post relevant; "Oh OK. So sort of like Buckethead." (I know, I know, I thought I was going to say Paul Gilbert too!) The interesting thing about this reply is, unbeknownst to this individual who gets their music education compliments of MTV news updates, as BAD an example as Buckethead is of someone who exhibits pure guitartistry, it's not too far off... in a six degrees of Kevin Bacon sort of way. Don't get me wrong, I think Buckethead is alright, I mean he's better than most at guitar. The truth is, he's NOT, I repeat NOT one of the great ones. Not even remotely close. He displays ingenuity, plays some cool modal and whole tone licks using additive rhythms, but overall lacks the clarity, phrasing, emotion, and compositional expertise that defines his predecessors and contemporaries. (Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Vinnie Moore, etc.) I'm not comfortable placing him on par with any one of those names so for now he remains out. But as I was saying, Kevin Bacon... Buckethead, AKA Brian Carroll as all consulted sources agree, actually studied with a young but well established guitar player extraordinaire, Paul Gilbert.

Bacon + Buckethead = The Colonel's Masterpiece

Paul Gilbert received much acclaim as a lead guitarist for speed metal underdogs Racer X in the mid to late 80's. Even in his early 20's, Gilbert possessed the ability to play with mechanical precision without sacrificing gilt-edged panache. As Racer X lacked the mainstream appeal to solidify the cult guitar hero status of Gilbert, his next venture landed him international celebrity. While Racer X was on a bit of a hiatus, Gilbert teamed up with THE legend of bass shred, Billy Sheehan, to form a formidable pop-rock outfit Mr. Big. While the band's recorded catalog doesn't do their cumulative ability justice, their live shows were enthralling and earned deserved rave reviews, particularly in Japan where Mr. Big have announced an upcoming exclusive tour.

In his time since Mr. Big, Paul Gilbert has recorded a few studio releases with Racer X but the majority of his attention has been given to honing his own craft with a series of releases as a solo artist. The first couple of albums highlight his ability as a singer and crossover guitar player whose proficiency transcends genre. The two most recent and all instrumental releases however are concrete evidence of quite possibly the cleanest, most technically skilled, and artistically diverse guitar player on the planet. With elements of jazz, rock, funk, metal, pop, classical music, and every perceivable kind of fusion inbetween, 2oo6's "Get Out of My Yard" and 2008's "Silence Followed By a Deafening Roar" both exhibit a modern metamorphosis of the musical virtuoso that remains grounded in timeless and proven classical pedagogy. Paul Gilbert has this uncanny artistry that allows him not only to perform perfectly perceptible 16th and 32nd note runs that will literally melt the flesh from your face, but also compose delicate melodic riffs that are as much about the notes that aren't played as the ones that sound. This is not simply the work of a one trick pony unlike that of so many artists who riddle the genre. Moreover these albums are seminal works in the history of guitar composition and performance, and should be revered as such.

Do yourself a favor and get your hands on these records and broaden your horizons beyond the doldrums of Buckethead.

Rock Band: A Small Window into Musicianship

This isn’t a video game blog, but something I found very interesting has happened involving this game.

I was eating dinner at school the other day and I ran into my friend Evan. He tells me he has two really exciting developments to tell me about. The first: He’s getting really into Diamond Head. And since Evan isn’t particularly a “metal guy” I was very happily surprised. After singing the end of Lightning to the Nations for a little, he told me about the second: He can play Battery on expert on Rock Band drums. Then he tells me about how he’s gained a new appreciation for heavy music because of it.

In my opinion, any avenue to quality heavy metal is a good one, and I started thinking about the serious musical implications of games like Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Beatmania, Poppin, and, to a much lesser extent, Dance Dance Revolution.

Both Andrew and I are players, and I know some of the readers are. As musicians, we relate to music in a different way than non players. For me, it’s hard to listen to a record without thinking, “Oh, I wonder how he did that!” or, “Somebody should fucking shoot this producer!” It is part and parcel to the way we perceive music. This isn’t to say that non-musicians can’t legitimately enjoy music, but a non-musician is usually more concerned with how music sounds rather than the physical aspects of playing. This can sometimes cause the untrained listener to fall into musical ruts, or hold bogus grudges against genres or bands simply because the immediate sonic experience is unfamiliar.

So, this is where the video games come in… Rock Band drums are probably the best instrument of all in the still growing “music video game” market. Unlike guitar it is pretty simple to simulate drums on a video game. You’re actually hitting the pads, you’re actually keeping a beat, and you’re actually breaking a sweat trying to keep up with Lars Ulrich (who would have thought…). So on drums, even more than guitar, the player gets the experience of playing a real musical instrument. They may even see the merit in a style of playing for which they previously had no frame of reference. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Giving non-players a window into music they would otherwise never have. And if that person gets so into the game that they feel the need to go buy a real guitar, or start playing real drums, all the better!

At first I thought Guitar Hero and Rock Band were stupid. But now, even besides what I described above, it seems that these two games are really having a positive effect on the international music scene/business. The Sword had their music in Guitar Hero, it helped them get more exposure, and they just toured with Metallica. Dragonforce had Through the Fire and the Flames on Guitar Hero, and that only helped their legendary status. And now, MERCYFUL FATE has reunited to record two tracks for the soon to be released Metallica Guitar Hero game. This could possibly even drum up enough interest for a FULL FLEDGED SECOND MERCYFUL FATE REUNION! ANYTHING THAT CAN GET THAT BAND BACK TOGETHER IS THE SINGLE GREATEST THING ON EARTH!

Sorry… I’ll contain myself.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

First Entry: Jon Oliva's Pain

Jon Oliva

Ok, so I picked the most unflattering picture on this band's website for reasons I will get into later.

First, let me give you a little history to put this band into perspective:

Jon Oliva was a founding member of the Florida based band Savatage. They were a surprisingly good second tier metal band that surived from 1981 to 2001. Savatage's first few records were a pretty good blend of pop metal and the NWOBHM that was influencing everyone in those days. Of course, they had their own style that gradually made its way to the surface with the help of Jon Oliva's songwriting and the outstanding guitarwork of his late brother Criss Oliva. Unfortunately, their early records were plagued with some bad mixing choices (specifically, too much reverb and not enough compression). This may not bother you as much as it does me, so feel free to buy Power of the Night or Hall of the Mountain King.

The band hit its stride with 1989's Gutter Ballet and 1990's Streets: A Rock Opera. This began a rash of concept albums that fully realized the band's potential. When I tell people about Savatage, I usually tell them to listen to these two records. I tell them, "Savatage is pretty much what it would be like if every Skid Row song was 18 and Life." Savatage writes THE BEST power ballads. And instead of love songs, these epic slow jams are all about getting famous, becoming a junky, falling from grace, and then clawing your way out of the gutter to become a HEAVY METAL LEGEND. But then maybe falling from grace again and eventually finding God.

Needless to say, I love Savatage. But in the late 90's most of the members decided to start a little side project to record a few Christmas tunes. They called it Trans Siberian Orchestra. Of course, this band blew the fuck up. Their live DVD was even the centerpiece of a PBS telethon (there's no evidence I can link to, but trust me, I saw it). So, Savatage was stuck. After scraping enough of the band together in 2001 for Poets & Madmen, it seems it was just too hard to keep a "Savatage" going.

So, in 2003 Jon Oliva's Pain was formed. This band is very much a continuation of Savatage, and a lot of what I stated above is inherent in their three records: 'Tage Mahal, Maniacal Renderings and Global Warning.

The first thing I must talk about, however, is the band name. It's bad, if you haven't realized yet. In reaction to hearing it, my girlfriend proclaimed, "More like Jon Oliva's IN-FUCKING-SANE for naming his band that!" She doesn't even want me to say it. So I just call them JOP. It's clear that the band name is actually "Pain," and they just want to make it obvious that this is Jon Oliva's new band. But its impossible not to take the name as a whole and imagine our friend Jon suffering from some excruciating pain. A pain only relieved by venting his anguish through righteous heavy metal. Actually, I bet they were going for this too... Anyway, if I have any say, I recommend putting "Pain: Featuring Jon Oliva" on all future albums.

Second I'd like to talk about the band's look. These guys aren't covering anything up. Jon Oliva is straight obese, and the rest of the band is peppered with overweight old timers. Have a look at this live shot:

Now, you may think they look a bit silly (especially the guitarist's pee stains), and while these guys haven't aged very well as far as metalheads go, they are still one of the best "classic" metal bands out there. Hopefully their look (or Jon Oliva's health) won't hold them back. I think Savatage suffered from that in the 80's (Oliva was no prize piece then either). What's good is that the band doesn't seem to even give a shit anymore. They're just going at it and playing righteous music.

Now for the music. The first record, 2004's 'Tage Mahal is my favorite of the three. It is probably the most like Savatage. It has a few great slow jams on it, but quite a few faster songs that remind me of the early Savatage records if they weren't tainted with sub par production. Blatant references to Savatage are everywhere, from samples of old vocal tracks to an album title as clever as a Lazt Frounturr song title. In general, Jon Oliva's songwriting is mammoth in a way that only a pioneer of 1980's heavy metal can achieve. "The Dark" and "Walk Alone" exemplify the old Savatage tradition with soft intros that explode into monster slow jams that will make you cry if you listen to them loud enough. While tracks like "All the Time" and "Outside the Door" show some evolution and a developement of a more distinct style. This album is a strong and promising intro to a newer band.

JOP's second release, Maniacal Renderings (2006), is not a bad follow up, but it moves a bit slower than 'Tage Mahal. With more slow jams and a few songs that tend to meander past the five minute mark this record is slightly less awesome. It still has its outstanding moments, but they're just a tad fewer and farther between. 2008's Global Warning (I like the Savatage puns much better) is even more in this direction. With a longer running time and even more slow and meandering tracks, this record is still enjoyable, but not as explosive as the first glorious release. Even so, I would still recommend this record to a Savatage fan, but not to an uninitiated party.

The general trend of their records has been a tad dissapointing. Even so, they haven't fallen off yet, and with a new album slated for October of this year there is still hope JOP can come back with some gargantuan 80's heavy metal. I'll be looking forward to the new record.

JOP grew out of a pioneering American metal band who, tragically, are not generally known by younger metal fans. The sound is a bit dated, but I consider them to be carrying the torch of non-thrash/non-death/non-black/non-stoner heavy metal. In a scene filled with detuned guitars, jud jud riffs, and copy cat screamers, I welcome a piano intro, standard tuning, and a soaring hook in a major key.

I've heard a rumor that Jon Oliva has been working on a broadway musical for years. The working title: "Romanov." I can't even imagine how amazing that would be.