Tag Archives: Rock

Absent Without Leave

We Ignore the Diminishing Value of Interactional Music Performance at Our Peril

With the democratization of music performance, we are all music inventors now. Anybody with a laptop and the ability to whistle a tune may invent the next musical genre without ever finding her way to a rehearsal room. For centuries, however, the music eco-system has entertained the notion of the dedicated performer. This individual plays one or more instruments (including the voice), with the benefit of some training or none. Before the digital world arrived, you were Liszt or Liberace, Satriani or Santana, Hendrix or Holiday, Marley or Madonna, violinist, bassist, or saxophonist, or you aspired to being one of those, or assisted one of them in your role as a skilled support instrumentalist. Now that facsimiles of all these people are in our laptops, are we still making fresh ones? Are they an endangered species? Do we have enough already? Why do we need more?  In brief, why do we need instrumental performers?

Danger Up Ahead

Performance skills seem to be little valued at the point of origin of a track or song (notwithstanding that those skills may acquire more value at the point of its public reproduction), being apparently easily emulated through music technology. Instrumental popular music performance, as evidenced by the laying on of hands to wood, gut, skin, and silicone in real-time collaboration with others, appears to be at something of a digital-age split in the road. One signpost points to ossification and redundancy, the other to re-evaluation and creative utility.

To master a musical instrument to a level that affords minimal creative options is seen as literally unaffordable because it takes too long. A cyclical reduction of skills (fewer are needed so fewer are provided so fewer are needed) condemns the limited performer to the constant repetition of the handful of gestures necessary to invoke the three chords and a backbeat paradigm. Most drummers, for example, are obliged to perform much the same thing most of the time. This is both a wasted resource and an unnecessary reduction to which they have acceded because they both underestimate and are unwilling to assert their cultural importance as catalysts for musical action. 

Drummers are well placed to resuscitate, to breathe life, to bring life to collective performance, but they remain too ready to abandon training, instinct and intuition at a moment’s notice, to accommodate another’s worldview. They tinker away in the engine room of the music to little effect—an abandonment of their traditional area of influence that borders upon a dereliction of duty. Such dereliction cedes power to others (client/producer/programmer) and eliminates the participatory discrepancies that make a performance unique. It halts the interactional scrabbling for the song-specific component that transforms the mechanical into the magical, the uncreative into the creative. To follow that road for a few more years will rightly consign the drummer to oblivion and do a calamitous disservice to popular music. Current practice, thus reduced, is susceptible to imitation by computer. Future value lies in the production of artefacts the computer cannot produce. What can the performer do that the computer cannot? 

It’s About Interaction, Stupid

Reversal is possible, however, given awareness of the situation. Research among expert drummers suggests that the answer lies in their specialist knowledge of rhythmic matters combined with sophisticated collaborative interactional skills that brings life to the music, preserving it from the dead hand of the oscilloscope. To communicate effectively, music needs interaction, be it intra-human, or human-computer. Music that includes interactive performance seems to be more affective than that generated from a technological alternative. Thinking around rhythm and drums has almost completely ossified in “mainstream” drumming, notwithstanding the fact that a thin top slice of expert players embody and exemplify the full range of creative expression possible across all genres.

High-level interactive abilities render performance outcomes effectively irreplaceable and irreducible, less prone to reproduction. I do this because you did that, or are continuing to do this. I may have misinterpreted your intention, but now we’ve both got something that previously did not exist in our imaginations or fact. I never much liked the first thing anyway. I think it’s good; you think it’s hopeless. How to resolve the problem? Let’s agree to disagree, put it on one side and start afresh with the lyric. Why are you stammering about m-m-m-My Generation? Great idea! Why a bass solo break? Because the man has an amazing sound with the Rickenbacker round wire strings. We could use that. From the employer’s point of view she never thought of doing it that way.

Alive to the Situation

Music education can help here. If creativity such as this is to be part of learning, a greater appreciation of what it means and feels like to collaborate creatively should be inculcated within popular music education: too heavily geared to the acquisition of technical ability as a creative tool, too little geared to the socio-cultural framework within which music creativity is typically enacted and distributed. A re-balancing would stimulate a reconsideration of the core purpose and value of performance such as continues to be found at the highest levels in popular music, but whose benefits are not being communicated further down the food-chain.

As digital-age music inventors move further from pre-digital notions of performance, there seems to be an uncomfortable and unspoken feeling that things were somehow “better” in the “old days,” that the analog 8-track Who and the Kinks rocked harder than their over-dubbed and down-loaded contemporary counterparts, and maybe there really was something about this business of playing music together with others that we dispensed with at our peril. Music students might be better introduced to the subtleties of human musical co-operation, that transformation of knowledge that takes place in the rehearsal room that gives life to the artefact at hand. In my mind, that’s what music performance is about.

The Call to Arms

Much of the above has focussed on drumming and the drummer, but is applicable to any instrumental performer. We need these people, and we need them to stand up and be counted. We need them to dive deep into their instruments to mine glistening new sounds and mint fresh possibilities for them. We need them to make a performance both unique and greater than the sum of its parts. We need them like the oyster needs her grit, the irritant that gives access to the previously unimaginable. I doubt Liszt could have imagined Hendrix, nor Mozart Stockhausen. The steps connecting each to the other were rough-hewn in part from the intervening decades of instrumental performance. We need performers to do what the computer cannot. Currently, computers aren’t great at interactional skills, but even that window may shut soon. Notwithstanding all the computer power at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine four machines producing the Who’s My Generation or Miles’ Bitches Brew. Above all, we need instrumental performers to interact with each other, the producer, the listener, and the world.

Some say a society gets the music it pays for; others that it gets the music that it deserves. I think it gets the music it can imagine. The music inventor needs collaboration with instrumentalists. That way he may be confronted with ways of doing things he’s never imagined before. 

Without such interaction, the music outcome is a lesser thing, bereft of its staff of life. Society ignores the value of interactional music performance at its peril. Video gaming is now replacing music as the most important aspect of youth culture: we musicians have practically invited it to do so. Music can use all the help it can get. Bold, breath-taking, imaginative, and skillful instrumental performance can offer a lot. Come on players, your country needs you. Let’s get to it. 

Bill Bruford, Ph.D., has an international profile as a bandleader, composer and drummer across multiple popular music ensembles over four decades. Retiring from public performance in 2009, he acquired his doctorate from the University of Surrey, UK, in 2016. He has written on the topic of music performance and creativity, and lectured extensively at European and North American institutions. billbruford.com.

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Music Interview: Matt Owens

Music Interview: Matt Owens

Matt Owens was a co-founder of the hugely successful indie-folk band Noah and the Whale – he played bass for them. Since they split, in 2015, he’s fronted raw rock ‘n’ roll outfit called Little Mammoths and launched a solo career. His debut album, Whiskey and Orchids, an acoustic-guitar and-piano-led record, came out in early 2019. This year, he’s released the follow-up, Scorched Earth, which sees him cranking things up. His Neil Young-style harmonica and beloved ‘60s Gibson Dove acoustic can still be heard on some songs, but this time around it’s joined by a vintage Gretsch electric, as well ...

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Music Interview: Susie Vanner and Kipper Eldridge

Music Interview: Susie Vanner and Kipper Eldridge

Susie Vanner could hold the record for the longest gap between a debut single and her first album coming out. In 1968, under the name Sue Lynne, she released a 7in on RCA, called ‘Reach For The Moon’, and went on to record a handful of rare singles that became Northern Soul club floor-fillers. One of them, ‘You’ / ‘Don’t Pity Me’ is currently worth £750 on record collectors website Discogs. This year, more than 50 years after her music career began, the singer turned actress Vanner – she appeared alongside Roger Moore in the 1977 James Bond film The ...

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Selling Steve Hackett by the Pound

Steve Hackett is not a man who could ever be accused of possessing idle hands. Ever since he stepped away from his role as the lead guitarist in Genesis in 1977, the veteran British musician has released over two-dozen solo and collaborative albums, along with numerous live recordings. Hackett has also made a point of establishing himself as an international touring force, supported by a top-shelf backing band that has the collective chops required to expertly tackle the more progressive-leaning entries his always challenging setlists cull from the prime 1971–77 Genesis era that bore his compositional stamp—not to mention handling his own highly experimental solo material.

In fact, over just the last half-year alone, Hackett has seen fit to release a three-disc (2CD/1BD) live collection, Selling England by the Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live at Hammersmith (InsideOut Music)—one that bookends multiple onstage performances from a beloved benchmark Genesis album with choice selections from one of his own best solo efforts—as well as publish a long-awaited autobiography, Genesis in My Bed (Wymer Publishing), plus serve up an all-new acoustic-driven, isolation-inspired travelogue, Under the Mediterranean Sea (InsideOut Music). 

In his autobiography, Hackett observes that “music doesn’t exist in splendid isolation,” which makes the scope of Mediterranean Sea that much more poignant. “I think what I was hinting at there was the idea that people design music in order for it to be received by others,” he clarifies. “If you were just doing it for yourself, it may well be that you would come up with a very different kind of product.”

Hackett’s pastoral sound leanings often hearken back to another era entirely, something he equates to his admiration for the legendary Spanish classical guitarist, Andrés Segovia. “His music is very poetic and very symbolic. There’s something about the way he bends the rhythm and takes time over a phrase, holding it because of the barre chord,” Hackett explains. “It’s a bit like an embrace. You get the feeling someone’s making love to the instrument, rather than just reading off the dots. It’s much more engaging. I’m told it’s a romantic, 19th century approach—and I’m just a 19th century guy, really. I like the way people played at that time, with lots of hammering on and hammering off to get different tones, and not articulating every note to the benefit of getting those varied tone colors.”

Classical elements permeate much of Hackett’s work—but it goes even further than that. “There are a lot of classical influences,” he allows, “but it’s a bit like classical meets blues. Blues was really the genre where guitar came alive, sonically. And then, of course, it was transmitted to all these other styles. I guess progressive music really attempts to bridge the gap between all these various genres. It’s also a generation gap that’s being bridged as well. The best progressive music certainly takes you places.”

The blues burble underneath the surface of everything Hackett does. “I think it’s what I’ve been all about. Certainly in my professional life, I wanted to be a blues guitarist and harmonica player. I wanted to be Blind Willie Hackett, actually,” he says with a laugh. “But I ended up doing something else, which was joining Genesis. And I found all the other guys were into very different things from each other—but everybody was pointed in the same direction.”

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Frank Sinatra: Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra

Released in 1950 as a 10-inch EP, Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra marked another turning point in a career that began with dance orchestras before turning to crooning ballads, only to—with this augmented 12-inch LP release—blossom into the swinging, finger-snapping, soon-to-be rat-packing Sinatra etched in memory. Side One gathers the original eight tunes—“Lover,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “My Blue Heaven,” “You Do Something To Me,” “When You’re Smiling,” etc.—while the flip side features bonus and alternate takes as well as some fun studio interplay. Before booze, smoke, and age roughed up his voice, here is Sinatra at his youthful finest. And my do he and his band deliver the goods. The sound lacks both frequency and dynamic extremes—as one would expect given the vintage here—but it hardly matters when the heart of the action, Sinatra’s voice, is presented with such immediacy and refreshing purity. Being recorded in mono, which as we know does not present stereo-like imaging, Sinatra stands front and center, with the orchestra clearly arrayed behind him with a suggestion of depth. Impex’s stellar reissue (the cover alone is worth the admission price) is a must-have for Sinatra lovers.

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Perfecting American Utopia

The story of the fruition of David Byrne’s  American Utopia begins, ironically, with what you’d expect to be the endpoint: the album’s release in 2018. Debuting at number 3 on the Billboard 200, American Utopia owed its success to Byrne’s return, after many years of soundtrack work and musically-experimental collaborations, to the crisp song structures and askew sensibilities that characterized his years with Talking Heads. Further, Utopia boasted some truly standout tracks. Exhibit A: “Every Day is a Miracle,” which, with its irresistible singalong chorus, ranked alongside Byrne’s best. 

Lyrically, American Utopia continued Byrne’s fascination for seemingly-insignificant slices of American life. However, this time out, he traded cynicism for a notably sunnier outlook. “We’re only tourists in this life,” he sang in “Everyone’s Coming to My House.” “Only tourists but the view is nice.”    

All that said, several factors kept American Utopia from reaching its full potential. The credits listed no fewer than 27 musical contributors, an assemblage that at times proved unwieldy and plodding. Then there was Byrne’s singing, which was uncharacteristically but consistently out of tune. An equal-opportunity intonation violator, Byrne was sharp as often as he was flat. That didn’t exactly ruin the music, but it sure was annoying. And while half the album featured undeniably worthy songs, the other half was subpar. 

As it turned out, though, Byrne was just getting started. In late 2018, he took the Utopia material on a month-long international road trip. For that enterprise, Byrne slimmed the band down to 12 musicians. That change, in turn, called for more streamlined arrangements. Byrne obliged, and in doing so found the emotional heart of each song. Meanwhile, the set list culled out the weaker Utopia material and supplemented it with astutely-curated selections from Byrne’s rich Talking Heads and solo-career catalogs. As you might imagine, the tour was a smash.

Next came a year’s hiatus, during which Byrne further tweaked the set list, arrangements, and staging. Then, in his boldest move yet, he took the revamped show to Broadway. Unfortunately, Covid-19 forced an end to the sold-out run. But there was a consolation prize. Later in 2020, we learned that Spike Lee had directed—and HBO had produced—a film version of the Broadway show. In conjunction with the movie’s release, along came American Utopia on Broadway (Original Cast Recording). And that’s how we can finally hear this music in full flower.  

The album is many things: a retrospective of Byrne’s prolific career; a chronicle of a unique performance; a live recording that gets the sound just right; and a showcase for the stupendous 12-piece band that Byrne assembled with musicians from all over the world. All of them, particularly the six drummers Byrne deploys to faithfully create his trademark polyrhythms, are simply non pareil. They can sing, too, as you’ll well appreciate on the a cappella renditions of “One Fine Day” and the opening to “Road to Nowhere,” both of which are spellbinding.

One obvious question about the Broadway version of American Utopia is whether it’s redundant of Talking Heads’ celebrated Stop Making Sense soundtrack. Both are live recordings, both have accompanying films made by noteworthy directors (Jonathan Demme, in the case of Stop Making Sense), and there is even some overlapping material. However, the two albums are very different. The premise of Stop Making Sense was that a band could be mutated—shrunken or expanded—in order to perfectly fit any song. In contrast, the American Utopia show illustrates how a broad range of material can be shaped to take advantage of one stellar ensemble. Also, David Byrne has written a lot of great material since Stop Making Sense was made, and Utopia covers the highlights.     

I’ve already alluded to the album’s excellent sound. While the studio version’s sonics are quite respectable, they can’t touch the Broadway recording. It’s one of the fullest and most present-sounding live recordings I’ve heard in some time. I especially recommend the LP, with its quiet vinyl and natural tonality. But if you’re going digital, be sure to bypass the CD and opt for the excellent 24/96 downloads and streams. They offer impeccable openness and unforced detail. In any format, the original cast recording of American Utopia is a treat you don’t want to miss. Highly recommended. 

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Legendary Metal Producer/Engineer Michael Wagener Retires

Michael Wagener - WireWorld Studio - Eve Audio
Michael Wagener in his studio, WireWorld 2.0, in an undated promotional photo for Eve Audio. Eve Audio

Nashville, TN (April 26, 2021)—Michael Wagener, the ears behind some of the biggest albums in metal history, announced his retirement Sunday, April 25—his 70th birthday. More than 90 million albums sold feature his name in the credits, as he worked with the biggest names in hard rock and heavy metal, including Metallica, Poison, Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Skid Row, X, Mötley Crüe, Great White, Plasmatics, White Lion, Alice Cooper, Extreme, Dokken, Stryper, W.A.S.P., Overkill, .45 Grave, Accept, Testament, Helloween, Keel and more, as well as artists in other genres such as Janet Jackson and Muriel Anderson.

Taking to Facebook to make the announcement, Wagener wrote,

I have now been active in the music business for over 50 years and I think it’s time to retire and get out and catch up on some vacations. I have sold the studio and Double Trouble Productions does no longer exist as an official company.

I had an amazing time and met a ton of wonderful people and I am thankful for having been able to work with such great musicians and create such wonderful music.

Now it’s time to see some more of the world.

This site will eventually disappear. No more mixes, productions and workshops. The studio has been sold and except for some guitars, amps and minimal studio gear there is not much left here.

I want to thank you all for allowing me to live a great life and to do what I love. I am looking at a future of lots of traveling; it has been a great trip so far.

As a teenager in Germany, Wagener was the first guitarist for the band that would eventually become Accept, but had to quit when he was drafted into the army at 18. In 1972, he began working for a Hamburg, Germany company called Stramp that produced equipment for studios and stage use; during that time, he earned a degree in electronics engineering. By the late 1970s, he had built a 16-track studio in Hamburg, Tennessee Tonstudio, where he learned studio production and maintenance. While there, he met American guitarist Don Dokken, who was touring Germany at the time, and the two became fast friends. When the self-named group Dokken was signed two years later, Wagener produced its first album, Breaking The Chains, which went gold in the U.S.

With that success, Wagener became busy over the next few years primarily as an engineer and mix engineer, as the then-burgeoning metal movement exploded. He teamed with lifelong friend and leader of Accept, Udo Dirkschneider, to form a production company, Double Trouble Productions, and during that time, also mixed debut albums for Mötley Crüe and Great White. With the U.S. hungry for metal, Wagener moved to Los Angeles in 1984, soon producing X’s Ain’t Love Grand and Stryper’s Soliders Under Command.

Yes, Even Guitars

Over the ensuing years, he mixed noted albums like Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Megadeth’s So Far, So Good…So What, Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears and Poison’s debut, Look What The Cat Dragged In. Meanwhile, he took on the producer mantel for Skid Row’s triple-platinum self-titled debut, Alice Cooper’s Raise Your Fist and Yell, Extreme’s commercial breakthrough Pornograffitti, Warrant’s Dog Eat Dog and others, while also netting a top-10 single with Janet Jackson’s pop-metal track, “Black Cat.”

While continuing to work with hard rock and metal acts throughout his career, Wagener moved to Nashville in 1996 and built his own digital recording facility, WireWorld Studio, which evolved to become a fully digital 5.1 surround production facility.

Original Resource is ProSoundNetwork.com

Wilco: Summerteeth (Deluxe Edition)

“The way things go/You get so low/Struggle to find your skin.” Those portentous words start the tracing of lead singer Jeff Tweedy and Wilco’s wrestlings with drugs, mental health, friendships, fatherhood, and finding a sound outside their alt-country roots. With vintage guitar prices skyrocketing, member Jay Bennett had started buying the old synths and keyboards that set the tone for Summerteeth. The arrangements, influenced by the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Van Dyke Parks, countered the anguished, surreal, or grotesque lyrics with their exuberant baroque sunshine. This remastering of the original CD only adds more dynamic range compression; hi-res files trump both versions. De rigueur discs of demos rarely entice me, but alternate takes of “Summer Teeth” and “Tried and True” are exceptions; the dozen eerie tracks with Jeff and his guitar embrace loneliness rather than fight it, similar to Springsteen’s Nebraska. The interview with Tweedy in the booklet is a must-have, but the crown goes to the two discs from a brilliant 1999 Boulder, Colorado, show. Older songs get a ragged psych touch; newer songs are guitar-heavier without the overdubbed keyboard layers, revealing one more tantalizing direction that Wilco could have gone.

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Music Interview: Matt James of Gene

Music Interview: Matt James of Gene

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of their 1995 debut album, Olympian, anthemic ‘90s indie-Britrock band Gene have had their back catalogue reissued by Demon Music Group. The Deluxe Edition vinyl box set, Gene: The Albums, which retails for £139.99, includes all four of the group’s studio albums – Olympian, Drawn To The Deep End (1997), Revelations (1999) and Libertine (2001), as well as the B-sides, live tracks and radio sessions compilation, To See The Lights (1996). There’s also a nine-CD set, (around £60), which throws in extra discs of bonus tracks and B-sides, as well as the 2000 live album, ...

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Metallica & the San Francisco Symphony: S&M2

The latest release by Metallica marks their second collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony, S&M appearing in 1999 while S&M2 was recorded in 2019. Pairing the Moody Blues with a symphony is one thing, but Metallica is quite another, and at times the four-piece rock band overpowers the nearly 80-piece orchestra. But when the tempo slows and the volume drops, the two forces blend together in interesting ways. The symphony adds layers of color to Metallica’s long, brooding instrumental, “The Call of Ktulu.” When band and orchestra team up during an excerpt from a classical piece, Alexander Mosolov’s “Iron Foundry,” the results are menacing enough to belong in an upcoming horror movie. “Wherever I May Roam” pairs vocalist James Hetfield with the orchestra to good effect. A raw, edgy tribute to Metallica’s late bassist, Cliff Burton, “(Anesthesia)—Pulling Teeth” begins as a solo feature for the orchestra’s principal bassist Scott Pingel, who’s then joined by drummer Lars Ulrich. Everything is well-recorded, and Metallica collectors have a plethora of formats to choose from, including DVD and Blu-ray, a 4-LP vinyl set, a 2-CD edition, digital audio, digital video, and, for the most hardcore Metallica collectors, some pricey limited-edition packages. 

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