So You have to record your band, you poor bastard

So, you want to record some stuff yourself.  Maybe you know a guy who will mix for you, but you want to save money and track everything yourself.  You’re living in a good time to do that!  Good job, you.  My band, Mischief Night, is planning on doing some of our own recording soon and it’s been making me think about what a bunch of half-drunk dudes in a metal band can do to make the process better and the results more awesomer.  I’ve been recording myself for almost as long as I’ve been playing guitar (thanks for that first SM57, Uncle Matt!!), so I’ve figured a few things out.  That said, I’m no pro and I’m used to using some low rent stuff.  I’m also frequently drunk.  I have decided that this combination makes me an ideal candidate to write this.  Good thing I have my own blog.

 

ALEX GRIM’S RECORDING TIPS FOR IDIOTS AND DRUNK CHILDREN

 

First off, I’m going to assume you’ve recorded a few things before and own at least some gear.  There are a lot of beginner guides, buyer’s guides, and tutorials out there, and I even ghostwrote some of them.  Don’t need to do that again.  This is going to be more like tips and improvements, food for thought, and me swearing a lot.  Strap in, bitches.

 

General tips

 

  • Don’t let your interface clip. Ain’t no good.  In your DAW, aim for an average level of, like, -8db or -6db or so.  Try to keep the peaks below 0db.  On some instruments, like bass, this is where having an outboard compressor can be helpful.
  • Don’t be afraid to break up an instrumental part into a few segments. For example, it’s going to be hard to get a good level recording a clean guitar and a dirty guitar all in one go.  Or if there’s a slap bass section or something, go ahead and record that separately from the regular fingerstyle bits.
  • Use a goddamn metronome.
  • If you are sending these tracks to someone else to mix, PLEASE zero them out.  Just drag the edge of the little box to the beginning of the song so that every track starts at the same time.  There is nothing more annoying than trying to figure out the exact millisecond a guitar solo is supposed to start or trying to line up six background vocal tracks using a mystical combination of eyeballing, ears, and gin.
  • In a similar vein, label the damn things. Is this the main guitar?  The one you want in the left channel?  LABLE IT

 

 

Guitar

 

  • Playing around with mic placement is great because it’s fun, rewarding, and educational. But sometimes you ain’t got time for that.  Take an SM57, put it an inch away from the grill cloth at a point close-ish to the edge of the speaker and angle it about 45 degrees towards the center of the speaker cone.  Do a test track and have a listen.  If it’s too bright and fizzy, move the mice towards the edge of the cone.  If it’s not bright enough, move it towards the center.
  • Generally speaking, ribbon and dynamic mics are preferred for electric guitar because condensers are just too bright.
  • Don’t forget that some amps have a headphone out that can sound pretty damn good.  I’ve got a blackstar HT1 that I record with all the time using the headphone out.
  • If you’re sending your tracks to get mixed by a person who isn’t you, try to get a clean DI signal so whatever poor bastard in charge of the mix has some options. If you’re using a software amp, this is obviously super easy.  Depending on what you’re recording, you might just plan on recording your parts using the GarageBand shit and sending the dry tracks to your mix dude/tte so s/he can re-amp it at their leisure.  I’ve gotten guest guitar solos this way with good success.

 

Bass

  • Use a DI. Just do it.  You can totally mic a bass cab, but you probably want to use a couple mics, especially if your cab has a tweater in it.  Bass cabs don’t always take close-mic’ing well, because the waves are so long and the instrument is super dynamic.  If you’re amp is at all modern, it should have a nice DI XLR output on the back.  You can also plug straight in and use a software amp or one of the many preamp pedals out there.  I use either an Ampeg Scrambler DI or an Amplitube model of an Ampeg SVT.  It’s about 50-50; I find the pedal does low and mid-gain better, while the software does fuzz better, but that’s just me.
  • Bass has a *huge* dynamic range, so if you set your levels to deal with fingerstyle and you start slapping, you’re gonna see some meters go red real quick. Keep this in mind and break up recording accordingly.

 

Drums

  • This is the hardest one, logistically anyway. You can get a great drum recording with just a mic or two (just ask Bonzo), but for that nice big metal sound, you need to get up in some close mic action.  For a normal five piece kit, you’re looking at seven microphones, and that’s not even getting fancy.  I’ll go piece by piece:

 

  • Kick: If you can get your hands on something actually designed for a kick drum, use it. You *can* mic up a kick with an SM57, but ugh.  I hope you like EQing.  So get your kick mic and stick it right up close to the resonant head (the one the beater *doesn’t* hit).  If it’s a ported head, even better: stick that fucker right on in there.  This will give you more “click” from the beater while still giving you plenty of body.  Experiment with turning the beaters around and see how you like hitting with the plastic side versus the felt side.  For metal, I usually like the plastic.  More attack.
    • One thing you will 100% notice is that your kick doesn’t sound as badass and thumpy as you think it should. Ignore this.  You can solve the issue, as many better engineers before you have, by wiring a big old speaker up to a ¼” cable and using it as a microphone (Yamaha makes one of those you can just buy).  Or you can save yourself the hassle and just use a low frequency generator triggered to the kick drum.  Reaper comes with one.  It works great.  The Reaper one defaults to 50hz and that’s just fine.  Don’t get carried away.

 

  • Snare: An SM57 is a pretty great snare mic. Just point it somewhere about halfway between the edge and the center of the top of the drum and keep it out of the way of flailing sticks.

 

  • Toms: mic them about the same way you do the snare. SM57s are fine on toms, but as they get lower, it’s not the best mic out there for the job.  It’s fine, though, so don’t worry about it too much.  Again, make sure your mics aren’t in the way.  If you have too many toms, you can pull the mic back a little and get two at the same time, or cover three rack toms with two mics or whatever you need to do.  Just try to make sure that no toms are getting too much mic relative to the others.  If you record a test track and hit each one in turn, they should all have about the same level.

 

  • Cymbals: The easiest way to get cymbals to sound good is to use a pair of overhead mics.  I like to use small diameter condenser mics, though some people prefer large diameter mics for the job.  If you have to mix and match, that’s fine, though people will say a matched stereo pair is better.  Do the best with what you have and it’ll be fine.  A large diameter mic with tend to soften the treble some while a small diameter mic with be brighter.  Dynamic mics are really not that great for the task, because they tend to lack the high-end detail and the transient response needed.  Ribbons likewise are warmer and smoother in the top-end than most people prefer.

 

Some Extra Thoughts on Overheads

 

There are a couple of different ways to do your stereo overheads.  Personally, I like to have the mics pointing straight down with one sort of high above the drummer’s left side (where the hi-hat and main crash usually live) and the other lower over the ride cymbal and the other crash.  Obviously kits differ.  I like this setup because the ride is quieter than a crash but is also a time-keeping cymbal.  Keeping the mic closer to it balances it against the crash.  On the hi-hat side, most drummers play their hats so damn loud you could mic it from a different room and it would be fine, so I keep it high to, once again, balance with the crash.

 

Whatever your kit looks like, this part is important. Since the overheads will be picking up the entire kit, you need to eliminate phase issues.  Make very sure the distance between the *center* of the *snare* head is the same distance from each of the two mic capsules.  I usually just use a mic cable to measure.  In an ideal word, the kick drum is also the same distance from the two mics, but if you’re close mic’ing the kick you’ll be ok.

 

BUT MASTER GRIM, WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE THAT MANY MICS?

 

Go to the store, you fool!  Or check out something called the Recorderman technique.  I don’t know who the hell Recorder Man is, but he wasn’t an idiot. It’s a two mic setup that does a good job of getting the whole kit easily.   –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeH8VsaUwV8 <– Here’s a good video demonstrating the setup and how to add to it if you have say, three or four mics.  Mohawk there also demos a few different mics so you get an idea of how different they sound (and why no one loves SM57s on overheads).

 

  • Keys: Generally, there are two approaches to recording keyboards.  One is using the sounds made by the keyboard, and the other is to use the keyboard as a MIDI controller.  If you’re using the on-board sounds, just plug the headphone out from the keyboard into your audio interface.  If your sounds do stereo things, like chorus effects or some slight panning, it behooves you to split the stereo output into a split mono pair (https://www.monoprice.com/product?p_id=601051 you’re welcome.  Or just fucking go to RadioShack, whatever).
    • If you’re going the MIDI route, just connect your keyboard to your interface with MIDI cables and record the MIDI and use whatever sounds on your computer you want. This gives you more flexibility in both sound and editing, but can also be a pain in the ass if you decide to be mad OCD about everything.  You do you, honeyboo.

 

Vocals

 

Oh man.  The human voice is such a pain in the ass.  So much so that I’m not even going to try to wrestle with MS Word about bullet points for this section.

 

Because it’s one of the things we’ve evolved to hear with the greatest detail, having your vocals sound wonky is way worse than you’re guitars being a little weird in the mid range.  You *will* hear that shit.  Most people like to use a nice, large capsule condenser mic for vocals, though the Shure SM7B, a large diaphragm dynamic mic, is pretty popular too, especially for death growls.

 

An SM57 is not an especially good vocal mic…except for when it is.  The louder your singer is, the more likely an SM57 is going to be ok.  I’m pretty sure Bono uses one in the studio a lot.  If you’re tracking, like, Maynard screaming, it’d probably sound fine on your webcam mic, under a blanket, and somehow stoned.  I’ve recorded my voice with a bunch of different things, and by far would pick a large diaphragm condenser as my first choice, every time.  That said, I’ve had good results even using the mic on an iPod.

 

USE A POP FILTER

Yeah, some old skool guys will say that you don’t need one with proper mic technique (point the mic at the singer’s mouth; don’t point the singer’s mouth at the mic).  Trust me, you’re gonna fuck it up, or your singer will fuck it up, or you’ll want to get half an inch away from the capsule to do something breathy or whatever.  Get a goddamn pop filter.  Get one of those metal ones, not the silly one that looks like a hat for your microphone.  They’re at Guitar Center for like, $25.  Caveat: if you’re using a stage vocal mic, like an SM58, it already has one built in.  I hate SM58s and personally recommend the Sennheiser e835.

 

Ok, so you’re tested out all the mics you own and found the one that works best with your singer’s voice.  You’ve got a pop filter.  Where are you going to record?  Intuition might suggest someplace reflective like a bathroom or a stairwell.  This can work really well, but you have to remember that any ambiance you get from your location is going to be permanently part of the recording.  This is not inherently a bad thing; Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska in his fucking living room on a four-track cassette and transferred it to a normal cassette using a boombox that he had dropped in a lake by accident.  It sounds amazing.

 

You’re probably not The Boss though.

 

If you don’t have an isolation booth for some reason, hop in your car.  Cars keep unwanted noise out pretty well, have no parallel surfaces inside, and the seats absorb other reflections well.  Your singer might complain that it’s harder to sing sitting down, but you have to weigh that against where else you can record.  A walk-in closet full of clothes works well.  Hell, aggressive close mic’ing can do the trick, especially with a dynamic mic.  The goal, if you can’t find the ambiance you love enough to commit to, is to reduce ambiance as much as possible.

 

Vocal Monitor Mix

This deserves its own section because the human voice is weirder than other instruments, and is also more delicate.  You need to make sure your singer is comfortable with what they hear in their head and their ears.  Most people hate the sound of their own voice, so this can take more time than getting a guitar monitor set up.  I think everyone wants to hear reverb on their voice.  It makes it sound less…wrong.  Until you’ve tried to record yourself singing, it can be a little difficult to understand, so have some sympathy and patience.

 

  • Note to singers: until you’ve tried to engineer a singer, it can be difficult to understand how much of a pain in the ass you’re probably being. One of the best things you can do to help is learn some basic engineering stuff so that when something isn’t working for you, you can identify what and/or why it isn’t.  For example, find out what it feels like to sing with too much compression on your voice, and figure out what kind of reverb you like to hear.  That way you can actually use words to describe what’s wrong instead of waving your arms around and getting frustrated when no one knows what you mean by “squishy” or whatever.

 

Personally, I like to hear a little bit of compression, a sort of long, darker reverb, and delay *if and only if* the song should have it.  I think getting the delay right before you hit record is helpful because it lets the singer play with it during their performance.

 

Your level for your vocal monitor is super important.  I remember reading an interview with Hansi Kürsch of Blind Gaurdian where he said that he needed it to hear himself loudly enough that he didn’t push too hard and blow out his voice, but not so loudly that he didn’t push at all.  Obviously that’s a little vague.  The specifics will depend on the singer, the song, and even the part of the song.  Just communicate specifically and frequently.  Make sure the singer is paying attention to how their voice feels and accept the fact that they just might not be “in voice” on a given day.  Sometimes it just happens, but feel free to berate them if this is their fault (they shouted too much last night, they drank too much coffee, were on the receiving end of a bukakke against all advice, etc.).

 

 

Additional General Tips

  • Use a goddamn metronome, especially if you’re not recording everything together live as a band. Your drummer might bitch.  I do not care.
  • Take time between takes to listen back to what you just recorded.  Even if you know it’s not something to keep, just taking those few seconds can help keep everyone in the right headspace vs. rushing through like mad.
  • Closed back headphones!!! ESPECIALLY for vocals.  If you are tracking in the same room as your microphones, use headphones that give you good isolation.  I own two pairs of Sennheiser HD280 Pros because they are isolating as hell.  They get uncomfortable after a while and they’re not as buttery smooth sounding as my special babies (I have a pair of Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pros and I will straight cut you if you even look at them wrong), but they fucking work.  You know what makes a vocal track sound a lot worse?  Drum bleed or metronome bleed.  Some bleed is fine, and is basically unavoidable.  A lot of times you can kill it with a gate anyway, but you don’t want some loud-ass guitars permanently on your vocal track or whatever.
  • Monitor mix! Does your singer need to hear all of the extra guitars on the second chorus?  Probably not.  Does your bass player need to hear the kick drum louder than it should ever be heard?  Most likely.  Give each performer the information they need.  Not more, not less.  I said use a metronome before, but once the drums and shit are down, maybe your singer doesn’t need it anymore except for that first verse before everything kicks in.  If your guitar player needs to hear the main track in the center instead of off to the left of the mix where it’s going to end up, put it in the center.  Little things like that can make a huge difference in how easy it is to get a good tack.  Whatever you need to do to increase the confidence of the person you’re recording, do it.

 

 

Below are some links to things I’ve recorded.  I’ve included notes as best as I can recall to give you an idea of how different setups, techniques, and levels of idiocy/inebriation impact the final product.  Stay grim, my friends.

 

https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/dreamy-waltz  <– Vocals start at 37 seconds.  I had to use the microphone on my laptop’s webcam.  I was able to make it fit the song by working with the low quality instead of trying to fight it.  The bass is just a clean guitar pitch-shifted down an octave, and all of the guitars are Amplitube.  This is a pretty primitive recording, the purpose of which is to show you that you can still get something somewhat decent with utter shit for a setup.

https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/wasteland-demo <– The drums are EZDrummer, the guitars and bass are both DI’s into Amplitube, and the vocals were recorded in my car using my e835.  Not quite as nice as a condenser, but not bad.

https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/drumception-hanging-out-with-mario <– the guitars are all my Blackstar’s headphone jack plugged into my DAW.

https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/smyth-swag <– I’m not a good rapper.  Everything was played on my iPod in the iOS Garage Band app, and the vocals were recorded using my iPod’s own mic.  Doesn’t sound too shabby.

https://soundcloud.com/makuchalex/all-of-me-punk <– I don’t remember exactly how I recorded the guitars.  The drums I did with a Recorderman setup, probably using one large and one small diaphragm condenser.  Notice that you can hear the whole kit, but it doesn’t have that “in your face” sound you’re probably used to.  Also, the kick is mad buried, which is why the third mic you add is always a kick mic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HnAPwFzPzc <– I linked to the video of this song because you can see a lot of the actual recording setup.  The bass is going straight into Amplitube, all of the guitars are mic’d speakers, the drums are mic’d how I talked about before, and I’m using my LDC for the vocals.  Also notice how goofy I look playing drums.

 

 

Gone is Gone is…Awesome

I tried to get MetalSucks, RollingStone, and PitchFork pay me for this, but they didn’t even respond.  So, as far as I know, this dumb blog gets the longest (and totally coolest) scoop on the debut Gone is Gone show at the Dragonfly in Hollywood.  You, my lucky four readers, are in for a treat!  I got drunk, snuck into VIP, and generally had a good time.  I also complained on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/p/BEOqXZhx5DF/?taken-by=makuch.alex) about how fucked the service fees were (an additional 50% cost).  Someone from Dragonfly was cool and hooked me up with some drinks (a couple Sierra Nevadas from the VIP party and a *powerful* bourbon and ginger), a gesture that was very much appreciated on my end.  But, here and now, without further ado, I present:

Alex Grim Got Drunk, Made Friends, and Saw an Awesome Pair of Bands

I saw Gone is Gone, the “supergroup” (they hate that word) composed of Troy Sanders (Mastodon), Troy Van Leeuwen (Queens of the Stone Age, A Perfect Circle), Mike Zarin (film and video game music), and Tony Hajjar (At the Drive-In), at the Dragonfly in Hollywood, and holy shit did it rock.  I’ve been a huge Mastodon fan for years and Troy Sanders is one of a small number of men I would go gay for (whoever plays Daario on Game of Thrones and Papa Emeritus III are the other two).

Sploosh

Pictured here: pure excellence

I’ve also dug QotSA and A Perfect Circle enough to be excited about Troy Van Leeuwen.  While I knew about At the Drive-In, I never really listened to them, and I had never heard of Mike Zarin.  That notwithstanding, I was sold the moment I heard the band existed. The 29 second sample on YouTube just confirmed everything I suspected: that this band would rock.

And rock they did, but not until New Language rocked ahead of them.  This was their first show, too, which hopefully gives them a good place to jump off from.  I ended up talking to a couple of the guys from New Language afterwards and found out that Tony Hajjar had produced their first record and apparently gotten them on the bill.

Great dude, goofy haircut

Every guitarist that night played a Jazzmaster. How cool is that??

It was a great fit; New Language reminded me a lot of A Perfect Circle and banged out a great, heavy alt-rock set.  Their drummer even looks a lot like Maynard (and had “Dump Trump” written across his chest).  I can’t remember specific songs very well, but they came across as musicians trying to get deeper into what cool alt-rock is, but not necessarily expand upon what it could become.  I don’t mean that as a negative thing; the world needs more great rock bands and these guys literally just had their first show.  I’m stoked to see where they go and it was great to hang with them.  They have a lyric video for their single “Wake Up” on their website, and it’s probably the coolest lyric video I’ve seen, so definitely check them out here: http://www.newlanguageband.com/.

But we were all there for Gone is Gone.  It was actually a weirdly mellow show for being sold out.  In comparison, I saw Ghost in El Paso the weekend before at a sold out venue and got lifted off of my feet and moved around a few times, and I weigh 200 pounds.  Here, though, everyone had tons of space and people actually encouraged me to get in front of them for a better view.  Maybe it was the eight dollar beers or maybe it was because half of the people there were VIP guest list people, but it was one of the most laid back rock audiences I’ve seen.  Whatever; I had a great spot.

When the band walked on, it seemed like most of the people there were there to see one of the Troys (sidenote, I saw on the internet somewhere someone say that they should have called the band “Troy Story.”  That would have been great).  There was some decent At the Drive-In love for Hajjar, too.  Mike Zarin (guitars, bass VI, keys, more vocals…dude is a monster) isn’t someone anyone has ever heard of, but his music is all over movie trailers and video games.  While writing this, I found an AMA on Reddit with Troy Sanders and Mike Zarin that got almost zero attention, but was still pretty cool and they talked about the genesis of the project and how Zarin and Hajjar had been collaborating on a sound for movie trailers and decided they needed to start a rock band to pull it off (https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/4fox79/we_are_troy_sanders_of_mastodon_mike_zarin/).  It’s kind of cool how much this band has been kept on the down-low, but it’s also super frustrating to find out I could have been best Reddit friends with Troy had I only checked r/IAMA more often.  The upside, of course, is that I and about 350 other people found ourselves within touching distance of four amazing and famous musicians on a Wednesday night.

Dat Jazzy doe

Pictured here: Troy Van Leeuwen, as well as the greatness of my spot

Then they started playing.  Holy fuck, they were loud.  The good kind of loud.  The mix was great: Sanders’ bass tone was big and meaty, Van Leeuwan’s guitar cut through with a sweetness that isn’t always associated with tones that cut, and Zarin was all over the place, switching between keys, guitars, singing, doubling Sanders on a bass VI, and probably some stuff I forgot because the one of the bartenders at the Dragonfly pours a hefty bourbon and ginger.  The only thing that was hard to hear were the vocals, but I think that’s because I was front and center and the venue didn’t have center fill speakers.  I’m sure the sound was better about 20 feet behind me, where the sound man was sitting.

I didn’t know any of the songs except for “Violescent,” which had premiered before the show (listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPvaFE7VOaM), so I can’t really give a blow-by-blow breakdown, but my overall impression was more than merely favorable.  Troy Van Leeuwen’s guitar playing was never overtly flashy, but it was always right where it needed to be, and he had a lot of melodies with these perfectly bent notes that I loved.  This band is really much more about the music as a whole than the mighty talents of the individual members and in that way you could really feel the composer instinct behind the songwriting.  The songs all felt very broad, like the music was stretching itself out to see what it would find.  It never really seemed to find a limit, either; it’s easy to say what kind of band Gone is Gone is not, but much harder to say what kind of band they actually are.  They exuded an air of art without being pretentious or inaccessible, and I’m stoked as fuck to hear their EP.

Just a little closing note: I snuck into the VIP section after the show and overheard that every one of the nice big laminated lyrics sheets Sanders had been using had been stolen, and I talked to the guys form New Language a lot.  I also got to shake Troy Sanders’ hand when he was leaving and tell him he was the best.  I had, of course and like any good excited metal fan and musician, intended to try to make him listen to my band, but I was drunk and just happy to say hi.  He was super cool and even told a security guy that I wasn’t bothering him.  That’s not really important to the show or the music, but it meant a lot that he’s the kind of guy who still has time for fans, even when he’s trying to go home.

 

Gone is Gone’s self-titled EP is scheduled to come out on July 8th.  Details on their website http://goneisgoneofficial.com/

Click on the pictures below for larger versions and insightful captions!

 

He Was Loved and We All Will Miss Him

Scott Weiland died the other day.  His ex-wife, Mary, wrote a much more personal (and bitter) piece than I ever could have (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/scott-weiland-s-family-dont-glorify-this-tragedy-20151207).  Scott was, to quote one of his songs, a “junkie piece of shit,” in so, so many ways, but he was also brilliant.  This isn’t really news to anyone, but the important thing about a person like him is to understand the full complexity of their character, that the human disaster could also be fantastically beautiful.  When he was on, Scott Weiland could fucking sing, man, and he could write a song.  He had a particular gift for making the incredibly personal relatable through the strength of his language, and his voice, of course, could range from crooner husky to pure rock bombast.

To me, Scott’s crowning achievement will always be Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, Stone Temple Pilots’ third album.  In the same way that most opinions on art are formed, mine is intensely personal: it was my first favorite album.  I remember being a little kid sitting in front of the stereo with the CD in the player and the liner notes with the lyrics in front of me.  I loved the riffs of course, but what really grabbed me before I understood how they all interacted was the vocal; this guy saying crazy shit about weddings in shells and lemon yellow booze.  Each song on that record has such a distinctive mood that is anchored in place by the lyrics and Scott’s voice, from the brash whining of “Pop’s Love Suicide” and “Tumble in the Rough” to the mellow, almost Beatles-esque whisper of “And so I Know” to the bi-polar freak-out of “Art School Girl.”

The thing that Scott could do maybe better than anyone else was write something completely off the wall that still resonated.  “Your wedding present’s not so daisy picture perfect anymore/Lady funny face, it’s locked and bagged it’s just outside your bedroom door,” “Hold me closer, closer, let me go/Let me be, just let me be,” and “She wears the leather, I wear the makeup/Never break up; been together for a month” have never left my mind, ever since the first listen back in ’96 or ‘97.  I think it is the impressionistic and often surreal nature of the lyrics that stuck with me.  Scott’s song writing, particularly at that time, was focused on what he was feeling and thinking at the moment he was writing the song.  He wasn’t telling a story so much as capturing a snapshot of a mood or emotion, and he was brilliant at that.

This style of songwriting let’s your audience supply their own stories, which is a different sort of connection than is achieved with a storytelling mode.  Take “Poncho and Lefty,” Townes van Zandt’s most well-known song.  It tells a story that, through the very specific details of the characters and plot evokes a strong emotional response and asks a listener to grapple with difficult questions of right and wrong.  Contrast that to “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart,” which is essentially a word collage, lyrically.  Scott claimed he wrote the song alluding to an especially bad acid trip, and I buy it.  But it’s not a song that’s *about* an acid trip.  I would be hard-pressed to concede that the song is “about” anything at all, but rather that “Trippin’ on a Hole…” dumps a listener into a manic mindset filled with paranoia, confusion, and a touch of hope and defiance (“I’m not dead and I’m not for sale”).  Any story you put to that is entirely your own, but anyone that song connects with has some part of their own story that meets up with it.  In some ways this is very post modern, but in more ways, I think, it is just music.  The Moonlight Sonata is a deeply emotional piece of music with no words, and I don’t hear a lot of people criticizing Beethoven for not including a few verses to explain exactly what we’re supposed to be thinking and feeling when we hear it.  Most of us just listen to it and feel it.  It’s art, man.  It has to make you feel.  Scott made us feel.

There’s a song by Jim Carroll, called “People who Died,” that I like to listen to when I think of the people who I have known or who have impacted my life have died.  I didn’t know Scott Weiland, but I’m gonna miss you, brother.

People Who Died

How to Make a Record

Or: Alex Grim’s Guide to Financial Ruin and Emotional Distress

I haven’t been posting here in a while. There are a few reasons, like that I can be lazy and that I have a job that takes a lot of my time and generally leaves me tired as all hell and also cranky. But I have at least one decent excuse: I’ve been working on an EP. It’s a heavy as hell (IMO) four track that will be called When the Sky Fell when I finally get it done. As of this writing, I still have to record the vocals for two songs and the drums for all four. I have next week to get that done.

I guess we’ll see.

Perhaps preemptively, I present to you:

Alex Grim’s Guide to How You, Too, Can Make a Record (of Arbitrary Length) and Annoy Your Friends.

Step One: Write Some Songs
There’s actually a somewhat optional Step Zero first, wherein you conceive of the record. I say optional because some people either write in their own particular style consistently enough that once they’ve written enough songs, they could do a record. There’s another class of people who aren’t worried about being that consistent on a single record, and so similarly are basically just fine to put a few (or a heaping handful) of songs that they’ve written that they like in some order and then worry about cover art. I actually especially admire this second group, and maybe one day I’ll have the balls to just do a record that’s all over the place. Purple, by the Stone Temple Pilots, is all over the place and it’s brilliant. So are a bunch of Zepplin records. Some artists (like Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, no doubt entirely coincidently) have essentially two kinds of songs on their records: singles and other stuff that sounds only very slightly like the singles. “Scentless Apprentice” and “Heart-Shaped Box” sound so little alike that one could be forgiven for thinking they were by two different bands, or possibly very different stages of the same band. But nope, they are, in fact, tracks two and three of In Utero. For me, I like to pick a sound or idea to explore and really get into the mindset of whatever that may be (in the case of When the Sky Fell, death/doom with lots of jazz chords) In any case, regardless of your stance on Step Zero, you still have to come to Step One: write some songs.

How you write your songs is your own damn business. I usually fuck around on guitar for awhile until something good comes out, record it on my phone, and either keep playing with the idea until I have a few parts figured out, or just move on and come up with something else entirely (or have lunch). Having done that, I’ll usually go back and listen later and decide if anything I recorded was worth keeping. About eighty percent of the time, it’s yes, but I’m also a whore, so don’t necessarily aim for that. You really should be brutal with yourself when writing songs, but also not until they’re done. Just write the damn thing and then decide if you want to keep it later. If you spend too much time worrying about getting it right on your first go, you’re just going to be stuck. So, for riffs, ideas, and doodles, cull, but not excessively. My only real criteria are that it sounds original, and not “suck,” a highly technical term.

So far I’ve been talking about song writing as a solo process, because for me it usually is; if you’ve got a band or someone that you like to jam with and the however many of you write stuff that way, do it that way. I would say, however, to be cautious with jams. They’re usually super fun, but they tend to go on and on. If that’s how you’re writing material, make sure you’re recording and make sure you have the patience to listen to those recordings, or at least have the discipline to stop the jam when you hit on something, start recording, and then remember to hit stop before you run out of room. I have never, ever met anyone who can remember every cool, worthwhile idea that happened in a jam, but I have known a lot of people and bands that spend all of their time jamming and never write a full song, much less enough to record an album. Music is supposed to be lots of fun, but it also has to be hard work sometimes. So write some damn songs.

Step Two: Demo That Shit
I’m swearing and wandering more than usual. I think it’s because I just read The Martian, by Andy Weir (I saw the movie first. Full confession: I didn’t even know there was a book until I was leaving the theater). It’s a great story with great characters but some clunky writing. Andy, if you’re somehow reading this, know that your ideas are great but you need to lay off of the adverbs; you do such a good job on your characters that we almost never need to be told that Watney is moving “groggily.” He was just knocked out for a few hours, of course he’s fucking groggy.

Anyhow. Demo that shit. I use Reaper because it’s awesome and only costs $60. Garage Band is fine, too, or even Audacity. I’ve done entire songs in a day in Garage Band on my iPod because I was bored at work. Whatever you use, do it. Demoing is important because it forces you to make decisions in a way that merely coming up with a song does not. Is the last chorus a double? Is the solo four bars or eight? Will you do that neat key change or is it too weird? You have to make up your mind. Demoing helps make those choices because you can try it a few ways, walk away for a week, and then just listen to your three versions or whatever and decide which characteristics you like best. Sometimes you’ll have a tie, but that’s ok. It’s art. You can do it that way live sometimes, or do a “(slight return)” sort of thing, or just collect enough cool, different demo versions and eventually do a whole album of those. It’s your art, maaaaaan. In any case, most of the time, demoing will make you finalize the song structure.

An aside on lyrics: When should you write them? Well, Kurt Cobain once said that music always comes first, but Elton John made an entire career on fitting music to the poetry of Bernie Taupin, his primary writing partner. As a songwriting exercise, I recommend making yourself do both. For me, I find that having the music, and therefore at least a framework for a vocal melody, makes it much easier to write lyrics, because you know where things have to fit. It is, however, pretty exhilarating to pour a piece of yourself into a poem and then write music around it. This is another one of those “however works for you, maaaaan” things.

One thing that you super-duper should do is figure out your tempos and time changes, if you have any. I mean, you will have a tempo (…probably), and setting your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to play you a click track is so beneficial it’s basically just stupid not to do it. Having a good click track makes it so easy to punch in edits, move sections around, experiment with extending or cutting parts, and just generally makes your life easier and your music sound better. Obviously, there are exceptions, and some bands simply do sound better if you record everything all at once and they just play off of each other. It’s more fun to do it that way, too, but if you’re playing most or all of the instruments yourself, or sending files to other musicians to record their parts, or doing anything at all with MIDI or programmed drums, you will *need* that tempo map. If you write weird stuff, said map is both much harder to make and even more critical. The EP I’m doing has a lot of pretty weird stuff, and getting it tight would have been impossible without a metronome.

Step Three: Make a Plan for Recording

These are both of the shapes I can draw

An extremely sophisticated example of planning for microphone placement

This is a pretty involved step. You need to be able to answer all of the following questions:
-Who will play the instruments?
-Who will sing?
-Where will I/we record?
—If at home, how is your room? Your gear?
—If at a studio, which one? Do you need to provide any gear?
-Once it is recorded, who will mix it?
-Once it is mixed, who will master it?
-Once it is mastered, how will you distribute it?
-Who will do the art?
-How much will it cost and what is my budget?

There are obviously legions of other questions, but most of the ones I can think of stem from answering these (what sort of microphones should I buy?) and the rest (What am I doing with my life? Where is my rent? Fuck!) are more ephemeral and are probably best answered by your high school philosophy teacher. Except the rent one. You’re on your own there.

(In regards to the microphones, oh man are there too many choices, but if you want to record heavy guitars, it’s really hard to go wrong with a Shure sm57. An Audix I5 or a Sennheiser e835 are similar choices.  The Audix is slightly scoped out of the box and the Sennheiser has a smoother high end (the Sennheiser is my favorite vocal mic of the three)).

Anyway, have a plan. A flexible plan is fine, but make sure you know and answer to all of those questions and at least have a good idea about the answers to any second-order stuff that pops up.

Step Four: Record the Motherfucker
You ideally want to do this as quickly as possible without rushing. It can be hard to maintain momentum if you’re chipping away over the course of months, not to mention the difficultly in maintaining consistency in sound and recording quality. That can be hard enough day-to-day, much less over the course of six months of Saturdays or whatever. This is currently the step I’m on now with my EP. I’ve been doing the most of my work on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the days I have off from work. It is not ideal, but it also the reality of living with people who go to bed at reasonable hours.

This is not my first rodeo; I’ve done two more records. Full lengths, in fact. I’ve never played every instrument before, though, which is what I’m trying to do now. I’ve done everything but drums before. I’ve engineered, mixed, and mastered everything myself on the other two; this time I’ll do everything but master, because I want a fresh pair of ears on the project. In other words, some of this is uncharted territory to me, as well. But, as Frank Turner says, we’re all in this together, there is no God, let’s have a beer (paraphrasing).

Some Final Thoughts (That I Stole From Something Else I Wrote a While Ago)
An album is no small thing. It should be somewhere between thirty-five and fifty minutes, ideally. Longer is pushing it, while any shorter and it starts to feel like an EP, a different kind of release. An album is big. They used to call them “LPs,” which stands for Long Play, a term that has fallen out of relevance with the advent of the compact disc and now iTunes and web streaming. An LP is longer than an EP, Extended Play, a term which is still around today. An EP is a smaller work, though it was originally an improvement on the 45rpm records at the time. The original EP format was designed to compete with the LP format. Turns out they just had different uses. EPs are for going off on tangents, or for releasing songs that didn’t fit on the last album but a band or a musician still want to release. Jar of Flies, by Alice in Chains, is a great EP. It’s clearly the same band, but their typical metallic grind is replaced with acoustic guitars and a deeper, rounder sound. It would not work as an album, but it is a near-perfect EP. An album should say something, and there should be a unity to it. An album does not have to be like a novel, a monolithic story, though it certainly can be. An album should, however, be much like a collection of stories or novellas which are related. Musically and lyrically, an album should be unified. This is not to say that every song should sound the same or be about the same thing, but rather that the songs should logically lead into each other, and that the lyrics should all contribute to the overall atmosphere of the album. Failing these things, an album becomes a lesser thing, a collection of songs that happen to fit all on one disc. The visual aspect of an album should not be overlooked. Album art should contribute to the music of the record. Pink Floyd were excellent at this, though many are as well, of course. The cover photograph for Wish You Were Here, two men in business suits shaking hands, one of them engulfed in flames, is a perfectly surreal compliment to an album dealing with loss and the damage the music industry can do to those working in it. An album requires a lot of work. Songs have to be written, every instrument must be played and recorded, and then those performances must be edited and mixed together in such a way that each part comes through in just the right way. It has to be loved and tortured forth into the world, and once it’s out it is tied forever to its maker. In that way, an album is a little like a prominent tattoo. It is not able to be ignored, and is a time capsule of the state of a musician at the time of its making.

     In my particular case, I’m calling my record (a catchall term) an EP due to its length (four songs, clocking in at around 25 minutes), but it terms of atmosphere and construction, I do feel comfortable using the term “album,” as I defined it above. Maybe I’m just fooling myself. In any case, drop me a line when you make your records, dear readers. I want to hear them. I’ll be posting mine here soon enough.

Peace, Love, and Death Metal,
Alex Grim

In D.C., I Gave My Heart to the Pharmacy Prophets

The Pharmacy Prophets are back, after years of absence.  There were some stirrings a year ago, with the release of the song “In Dallas I Gave My Heart to a Killer,” but now they have a six-track, the first of a three album (EP?) cycle called Fantome’.  Part I: Needle, kicks off with “In Dallas…,” and it’s clear that everything that made the Pharmacy Prophets a cool, kick-ass rock band are still in evidence.  I should be honest and say that this band is personally very important to me.  When I was in middle school, my dad was friends with their lead guitar player at the time, a Texan named Trey, and we went to as many shows as we could get my 14 year-old ass into.  Trey and Steve, who is the singer and rhythm guitar player, were always super cool to me, and that meant something to a kid who had his own aspirations of rockstar-dom.  One thing that I was always bummed about, however, is how many of their songs were not on a CD.  After many years, that is changing.

Enter Fantome’, Part I: Needle.

The production sounds dark, like their 2005 EP Pan into the Grayscale, but it is a bigger, more open sound.  Impressively, it sounds a lot like best parts of Pan into the Grayscale and their first record, Songs of Death and Happiness: the verses are dark, brooding, and heavy while the choruses are big and anthemic.  Front man Steve Bowes is up to a lot of his same tricks: ghosts and whisky and grungy, dirty storytelling.  Some of the songs are very clearly echoes of earlier ones: people die to live and live to die, and “Amelia Pride” reminds me a lot of “So She Said,” off of Songs of Death and Happiness.

Speaking of “Amelia Pride,” I remember hearing this song live back when I was in middle school and thinking it was one of their best.  I’m happy to report that the recording absolutely does the track justice, and the big vocal arrangements are a welcome addition.  This is a song you can’t help singing along to.

The standout track, however, is “Let me Sleep,” a big, nasty bluesy number that swaggers across the soundstage.  The grit in Steve’s voice is chilling as he howls “She’s only been a ghost for a while,” and I might be in love with the snare drum sound they got on this record.  I do wish there was a track in between “Let me Sleep” and “Miracle Road.”  They’re both great tunes, but for basically the same reasons.  They don’t sound like one is a copy of another, but they’re both heavy blues songs.  Fortunately, both tracks are strong enough that by the first chorus of “Miracle Road,” I’ve forgotten to be annoyed and am instead just rocking the fuck on out.

Needle closes with the track “Lightening (the Ghost of Pride),” that also saw a release on Grayscale. This time around, it’s faster and more metal-tinged in the way that makes you turn your stereo up as soon as it starts, no matter how cranked it already was.  There are some pretty solid double-kick accents, and the wah-laden guitar covers the whole track in much more aggressive way than the prior version.  The lyrics on this update have been changed from being from the point of view of a John finding a prostitute that reminds him of the girl loved, who died (I think).  In the new one, the lyrics I think are from the point of view of Amelia Pride (or, rather her ghost).  I’m not sure which version I like more.  I think ultimately, the heavier update, while badass, lacks a bit of the blues stomp the earlier release, and the faster tempo doesn’t leave quite enough space for Steve’s vocals to sink in.  I fully admit to the bias of nostalgia, however;  I’ve been listening to Pan into the Grayscale for the last ten years and been loving it that whole time.

I really, truly hope that we’ll see more shows from these guys, as well as the completion of the other two phases of Fantome’.  In Needle, The Pharmacy Prophets have put out a compact, powerful record.  The sounds flit through blues, touch on country and heavy metal, and ultimately embody that ambiguous genre we call “rock.”  You could do a lot worse than to drop six bucks on this album, and I’ll be surprised if you’re not singing along by halfway through track one.  Go buy it, go crank it, go break something.

Look for it on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, or whatever

https://www.facebook.com/thepharmacyprophets

A quick look at pickups

If you don’t know anything at all about electric guitar pickups, I recommend you read something like this first, for some basic background: http://www.dawsons.co.uk/blog/main-electric-guitar-pickup-types

Let’s talk about pickups for heavy music.  The first thought that a lot of people have is more gain=more heavy.  High-gain, high-output pickups have their place, but they are also not the end-all, be-all of heavy guitar sounds.

To demonstrate my point, I made a short video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRY9w5mtRmQ&feature=youtu.be) comparing the pickups in two of my guitars: an Ibanez DTT700 and a RGT42DXFX (inspiring names, I know).  The DTT is a Destroyer with DiMarzio D Activator X pickups, and the RGT is a super strat with Ibanez Infinity pickups.  Though they are shaped differently, and the Destroyer weighs about eighteen million pounds, the guitars are actually rather similar in most important ways.  They are both neck-thru instruments with mahogany body wings, passive electronics and a hardtail bridge.  In terms of sound, the primary difference between these two guitars is their pickups.

The Ibani

The Ibani

The differences are pretty audible, and what you like best is really up to your own taste and style of music you want to play, but let’s talk about what we’re hearing a little bit.  Compared to the INF pickups, the D Activator Xs are “tighter” sounding (which, at least here, to my ears, is them picking up more treble and a little less of the far low end).  The other main sonic difference is the dynamic range possible with each of these pickups.  The DiMarzio set is more compressed, meaning that there is less of a difference between maximum and minimum output.  They also are generally louder than the Ibanez set.  This is especially clear in the last two clips, where I play a D power chord very softly and then very loudly.

You can argue for hours (as they do on reddit/r/guitar) over why or why not compression is good or terrible and how vintage things are more “open” and less “shitty” or whatever, but the truth is that it’s your sound, so use what you like.  I love the way both guitars sound.  For my part, I find a lower output pickup to be better for more dynamic, textured and layered music (If you’re a fan of Tool, you might go for something with less output, as an example).  High-output pickups are great for when you need your guitar to be a sledgehammer, or if you’re mostly concerned about playing shreddy leads (where compression is a must).  That’s all pretty obvious, but it’s important to think about what you’re trying to accomplish before you just buy the baddest, most mother-fuckin’ pickups you can find because you want to crush.

“Ok,” you say. “But how in the Satan do I tell which ones to get??  What the fuck is an Alnico?”

Valid questions!  Well, there are active and passive pickups.  Passive pickups tend to be more colored (that is, not having a flat frequency response) than active pickups, and active pickups are usually more compressed and higher output than passives.  Personally, I can’t stand playing active pickups, but lots and lots of metal guitarists love them.  Don’t let me stand in your way if you love a set of EMG 81/85s.  Active pickups use weaker windings and magnets and then use a battery-powered preamp to boost the signal from your guitar.  Passive pickups do without the preamp, and so must generate high output from lots of wire and powerful magnets.  What that means is that passive pickups deliver a pretty colored signal and vary a lot between models.  Active pickups deliver a very loud, relatively uncolored signal.  There are also a lot fewer models to choose from.

If you go the passive route, you have three main magnet choices, Alnico ii, Alnico V, and ceramic.  Alnico ii magnets are usually only used in vintage-voiced pickups, and tend not to be as loud.  Alnico V is pretty standard, and pickups using those magnets range from pretty mellow to crazy powerful.  Ceramic magnets are generally the loudest, and can be “brittle” or “harsh” sounding, but they can also be very powerful and clear.

In my video, the INF 2 pickup has an alnico V magnet, and the D-Activator X has a ceramic magnet.  The INF 2 also has traditional pole pieces, whereas the DiMarzio pickup has huge blade-style pieces.  See the pictures!

-Alex Grim

INF 2

INF 2

D-Activator X

D-Activator X

Meytal Cohen’s First EP

Good songs, bad producer

As soon as the record starts, I’m reminded of A Perfect Circle.  The guitar parts are pretty sexy, I won’t lie, and I like how busy the drums are; Meytal can play her ass of and she’s not shy about it.  I am completely ok with this.  The bass tone is excellent, but I’m a disappointed in that I feel like I can’t hear the bass enough.  I saw the video previews for some of the songs and the bass was so growly.  In my headphones though (Sennheiser HD 280 pros, 64 ohm, for the nerds out there), I can hear the bass, but not as well as I’d like.  There are places where it pops out a little, but I feel like until the bass break in “Killing Time,” the third song, the bass is more audible as clicks than anything else.  When the rest of the band gives the bass some room though, it sounds real damn good.  “Killing Time” is the best showcase for the bass, but I hope they mix it a little louder in subsequent releases.  EP closer Shadow in Disguise shows almost a djent influence (ugh…just typing the word “djent” pisses me off), but in a good way.  It’s strongly rhythmic and grooves well in that start-and-stop way djent is all about.  Lacking is the AXE-FX rig and the random-ass arpeggios.  Both fine to do without, I think.  Listening, the instrumental influences are right there on the sleeve:  Tool, A Perfect Circle, and maybe Breaking Benjamin are the three I hear loudest.   The band shows off some serious, if not super flashy chops.  Basically, the playing is technical, but tasteful.   The vocals though, I’m not sure how they fit in.  Like, the singer is good, no doubt; I can’t hit those notes.  But the music is ducked so hard under the vocal, and the production is so slick the songs end up feeling a little squashed.    The guitar riffs like Adam Jones, but it sounds almost polite instead of nasty, and there are these synth lines and effects throughout the EP that work fine enough, but I think weaken it overall.  I have no idea if this is the case, but it sounds like the band wrote a bunch of cool, heavy songs that are interesting and tight, and then hired a producer who said “Oh, we need radio play.  Let’s make the singer sound like the dude from Chevelle and throw some extra synths in to get the mix a little denser, so we can COMPRESS IT MORE.”  Seriously, listen to “Killing Time” and try not to be distracted by how much better it would be with Maynard singing and none of that stupid “telephone” EQ.

I really feel like this band wants to sound more open and raw (like Lateralus, one of the best produced heavy rock/alt metal/whateverthefuck records out there), but they didn’t have enough clout in the studio and got bulldozed by a producer who wanted them to sound like heavy Three Days Grace or something.  I’m not a huge fan of the singer, but I suspect that’s more the fault of the production “direction” than his actual voice and ability; like I said, dude can hit some big notes.  The reverb, echo, and sheer number of vocal tracks just gets in the way though.  Listen to “Parabola,” by Tool, for comparison.  All the instruments sound huge because they have space.  When the guitar and bass double each other, it’s hard to tell them apart because it’s just big and thick, but when the guitar goes off to do something else, the bass is super clear.  The drums are massive and spread across the entire stereo field, and the vocal is pretty dry, dead center, and sits *in* the mix instead of on top of it.  Meytal’s EP by comparison, almost never has a spare bit of audio space.  The instruments seem to be competing more than cooperating.  In particular, the vocals and the guitars overpower the drums and bass.  When I switch to shitty laptop speakers, every bit of clarity is gone and the parts I can hear lose their context.  When I play “Parabola” through the same speakers, you can still hear all the parts.

It seems like I’m putting this EP down, and I really don’t want to be.  The music is very cool and is, in my (obviously paramount) opinion, being held back by bad production practice.  Which is a shame, because even for all the radio-friendly, alt-metal sensibility in the production, the music is probably too aggressive to have much staying power on most rock radio stations, and by making it so slick, I feel like they’re turning off people who might otherwise like it a lot. I think maybe the most frustrating example of the problems with this EP starts at about 2:12 in “Killing Time,” during the bridge.  The guitar is in the right channel, chugging out a pretty cool riff, the vocal is singing over it with pretty tasteful echo, and all is almost well, except there’s this stupid fucking rhythmic clicking (not even like, drums) that pans back and forth across the soundscape and brings you out of the moment in bafflement.  WHY IS THIS EXTRA THING THERE??  WHY IS THERE A THING??  A moment in the song that was almost the coolest part got ruined by some extraneous shit.  I feel like that’s the story of this EP; it’s not the musicians, it’s the producer.

I give this EP 4/5 for music, but 2/5 for production, because the production has no idea what the fuck it’s doing.  I guess that averages to about 3/5, which seems about fair, based on my enjoyment.  I want to make clear, I think these guys have potential, and I know they can play and write a song, but they need to sort out how their records are going to sound before I’ll be able to call myself a fan.

-Alex Grim

Pick up Meytal’s First EP here for $4.  Four tracks, download only, .Mp3 and .WAV.  Not too bad a deal.

http://shop.meytalcohen.com/products/first-ep-3-singles-mp3-wav

Ten years a Leviathan

Ten years ago today (…and like, a month…shhhhh), Mastodon’s Leviathan came out to, as far as I’ve been able to find, essentially universal acclaim.  For all of that, I’ve only been able to find two retrospective pieces (one, at hitthefloor.com (http://www.hitthefloor.com/music/rock-metal/looking-back-mastodon-leviathan-10-years/) is basically a (well written) review.  The other, over at Violent Resonance talks a lot about the themes of the record (http://violentresonance.com/return-to-the-gallows-of-the-deep-reflections-on-ten-years-of-mastodons-leviathan/)).  These are both glowing pieces, but they’re also fairly impersonal.  Guys.  This record is fucking great.  Leviathan is Master of Puppets for the 21st century, at least in terms of how much I care about it.  And this is my blog, so those are the only terms that matter.  In 2008, when I was driving my mom’s car to school, I only had one tape.  It had most of Master of Puppets on one side and most of Leviathan on the other.  It was the most frustrating yet awesome tape anyone has ever made, because it cut “Orion” off RIGHT BEFORE the awesome bass interlude, and cut off “Hearts Alive” right before things got reeeeeeally heavy.  Maybe because I am not the most intelligent person in the world (why else would I be starting a blog about music instead of becoming an engineer like my mom wanted?), but it would get me *every* single time.  I’d be ready to scream BUCKET OF LEAD/BATTLE IS SHE with all the power of my seventeen year-old lungs and angst, only to hear that infuriating *click**clack*.  The only thing that soothed me was, moments later, hearing Hetfield on the nylon strings as “Battery” awoke on the stereo.

I’m surprised the steering wheel survived its daily beatings.

Leviathan is, as others have noted, a smart damn record.  Only four of the ten songs exceed 4 minutes.  Only one exceeds 4:30, which is, of course, the astounding “Hearts Alive,” clocking in at nearly fourteen minutes.  In a genre that revels in long, self-indulgent tracks, Mastodon manages to cram songs that might last seven or eight minutes in other hands into pop-song length.   Listen to “Megalodon,” the second longest song on the track.  It is shorter than “Some Nights,” by Fun and manages to have enough riffs to spawn five or six full songs, including a goddamn banjo break before the second minute is over.  Between Brent’s chicken pickin’ and the big, time-bending riffs of the second half, “Megalodon” might be Mastodon at their most Mastodony.  This segues into “Naked Burn,” one of my very favorite songs ever (my dad once said it sounded like the Stone Temple Pilots wrote a metal song).  Fun fact:  I’ve seen Mastodon five times, and they *finally* answered my plea and played “Naked Burn” on their spring tour.  I was probably the happiest person in the entire room while that was going on.  That same show, they opened with “Hearts Alive,” one of the coolest, heaviest, bad-ass-ist tracks out there.  How do you even start a show with that?  When you’re Mastodon, apparently, and your second record is already the stuff of metal lore.

It’s important to look to what was going on in metal around when Leviathan came out.  Remission had already been out, which is an excellent though less unified effort.  Layne Staley had died two years ago.  Metallica’s St. Anger and associated documentary had come out the year after, and Megadeth’s The System has Failed came out two weeks after Mastodon’s record dropped.  I’m aware that other bands existed at the time, of course, but we’re talking about some big names; the popular faces of heavy music.  St. Anger is, to say the least, a polarizing record.  The System has Failed is less controversial, but also to me less ambitious.  Metallica was maybe the biggest band in the world since the Black Album came out, and while die-hard metal fans hated everything they did in the 90s, a lot of other people liked the Load/Re-Load era enough to buy records and see shows in epic numbers, and the change to a more hard rock style made coherent sense after the fairly big change in style and aesthetic that came with the Black Album.  St. Anger wasn’t a return to form, it was a crazy shot in the dark. It’s weird and funky and, despite having some serious energy and some cool riffs, there is enough wrong with it that it’s mostly hated.  The system has Failed was a more typical return to form for Megadeth, complete with chromatic riffs that work better than they really should and lots of whining (a diss track at Lars Ulrich?  Seriously?).  But the thing with The System has Failed  is that’s basically trying to be Rust in Peace.  The third thing that happened in 2004 in metal?  Dimebag Darrel got murdered in December.  Pantera had already imploded at that point, but until then, there was still hope in the form of Damageplan.  So, to sum up: the two biggest metal bands of the 90s that weren’t retarded were no more, and the two biggest metal bands of the late eighties were either stuck in the past or therapeutically using protocols to go on wild tangents.  Shit was a mess.  Mastodon came to the rescue with a record that showed where metal could go.  It’s thrashy, it’s sludgy, it’s dexterous, it’s furry, and it absolutely kicks ass.

I could go track-by-track, but that would really just be retreading old ground.  The album has been around long enough for everyone who cares to already know their favorite tracks and why they’re good.  The point of this post (the first of my new blog!) is to talk about the entire record.  The big thing everyone knows but I haven’t mentioned?  It’s a concept record.  About Moby Dick. Now, Moby Dick  is a story about obsession, and the very first track, “Blood and Thunder,” sets up the theme of the unobtainable with the chorus “White whale/holy grail.”  It’s that thing which you want more than anything, but the quest for it is unending and probably will destroy the seeker.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like the quest to make a career playing heavy metal, or to record the perfect record.  Leviathan has at its heart a conflict between the band’s own goal to achieve the unachievable, and their self-awareness of the difficultly and destructive potential of that task.  It is almost ironic, and happily so, that mastodon have been able to make their living as musicians in a genre that has always been just off the radar.

Happy Thrashing

Alex Grim