Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - May 2020

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Dawn of DAW Collage Metal

  A student recently turned me on to an artist named Richard Henshall.

 Interesting music.  The first song I head has some guitar sounds that sound "dropped in" on a DAW - "digital audio workstation". 

 Digital sampling first entered the toolbox of musicians in the 80's.  With the Fairlight and Synclavier workstations, later the Akai 9000 drum machine, a musician could bounce a finger on a key/button and playback the sound of an entire orchestra playing a chord for an instant.

 This became known as an "orchestra hit".  Different examples of this style are scattered through music of the 80's, with many examples of voices recorded and made to stu-stu-stu-tter-ter-ter with the bounce of a finger.

 Then later, Pantera happened.  Suddenly noise gates were in fashion, to make choppy stacato rhythms that much tighter. Much metal has been made that is descendant of this style. 

 Like most things in the 21st century, this has to be taken to the extreme.  My first thought is that Periphery took the "overtly rhythmically complicated arrangement" theme and ran with it, alongside the math rock djent bands that seemed to be trying to backwards engineer Morse code.

 Meanwhile "Prog Metal" happened and odd time complexity became That Much More Cool.  Perhaps spurned by Tool, overt compound polyrhythms became a prerequisite instead of the Showcase Bit. 

Concurrent to this the "dance/house music" EDM scene went through a metal-like fractioning of genres, and in turn had created many niche sub-genres based on rhythmic density and style.  I would suggest the producer Photek to be the progenitor of much of this; parts chopped up in DAWs and made to loop back in rhythmically peculiar ways.  A distinctly unnatural sound, created with technology.

 Polyphia seems to be leading the charge today, I'd also suggest maybe Chon.  Rhythmically sliced up "incomplete" parts that feature moments of dissonance, contrasted against partial melody, sometimes unresolved, sometimes "ironically" resolved.  But thematically, a few different parts "glued" together to form a whole.

 A collage.

 The thing about visual collages is that they usually range from being clever ways of yielding a whole image from distinctly individual parts, or almost a whole image, or just an abstract collection of disparate bits and pieces.   It can have a fractal quality; "wow, a giant Mona Lisa made of multicolored tiny images of the Mona Lisa!", "that's a car made of pictures of horses!".   Or sometimes it can just be a hodge-podge of almost recognizable bits, a cutup image of a rockstar glued to a piece of burlap inside a shoebox.  

.... sometimes it's just garbage glued together and called "art".  

 I'm pointing this out because this genre is almost an exact analog to the visual.  Collage as a form is very, very forgivable.  That is because it's my theory "art" requires presenting chaos in an organized fashion. "Organizing" garbage on a piece of canvas presents chaos that can disguise itself as being almost "art" because of that.  So it's a very easy door to open artistically; how far in one goes is the question, and how.

 Note another parallel: a whole lot of effort can be put into the detail of doing a collage.  A LOT of effort.  I'd ask "how many famous collages are there in history?".  I'd almost count some of what Andy Warhol did maybe, but in the case of "DAW Collage Metal" nobody is doing big swaths; Pantera maybe did, the Andy Warhol of the genre? (I think that was a joke?).  But my takeaway from this is the vibe I got as an art major: there are a lot of art students putting things together with other things in a semi-organized fashion, and then putting a frame around it and hanging it on the wall.

  Which is fine if that is truly what you want to do and like.  It's not for me; I'd rather keep working at the skillset as a whole to present just a painting - maybe the equivalent of a pop song.  Listening to Richard Henshall, I hear moments that hint at parts of a larger whole that I'd like more.  At about 6:30 minutes into a song called "Lunar Room" despite the busy metal drumming and loud production, it strikes me as being "Cold Play".  It's like a collage of bits and pieces, where the artist decided to make a nice little drawing of a house down in the corner, surrounding with a lot of "stuff".  

 It's interesting, it's literally like examing a collage hanging on a wall.  I'm an old dude: I still like the "Boomers", Monet and Renoir, Hendrix and Gilmour.  

 Hmm.  1:00 into "Limbo" by Henshall I'm hearing a guitar part that is... another Cold Play/U2 guitar dotted line?  I applaud his effort, and like some collages I will look at it briefly.  The thing that makes me sad in the 21st century is that I wonder if this is a reflex against the seeming impossibility to make a valid statement with less density?  The reason I'll only look at it briefly is that the emotions it creates are fleeting, and not as potent as the components.  I would prefer to listen to Cold Play; or for Loud Existential Bombast Beethoven's Eroica symphony.  For that prog-rock vibe Brand-X or Rush; for the Big Metal Production Devin Townsend.   I want to pig out and mainline the vibe.  

 If I was mountain biking in a pre-injured body 20 year old sense, this would make music that might fit listening to while zooming through certain trails; but it wouldn't be a synchronous experience (a separate project I want to do: music to go along with riding particular mountain bike trails...). 

 Collage metal.






Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Chinese Effects Pedal Buffet Is Now Closed

Get 'em While They Last.....

The days of buying cheap Chinese clone pedals I think are about over.

I used to recommend a $35 two-switch loop pedal to students, sold under a number of "brand names", that is now going for around $75 or more.  

 I'm sure there will be a while before the glut of Tubscreamer copies disappear, but the prices are going back up to the $60-70+ mark.  It briefly became easier to get some of these drop shipped via Amazon instead of having to order straight from China by Aliexpress.  How long you'll still be able to get things shipped from Aliexpress I don't know, but I see the prices creeping up on there.  

 Whether if you order something at this time (May 2020) you'll actually get it I don't know.  Some things I know they ship out of warehouses in the States, but some of the more obscure items I don't know.  

 If you've never owned the "standard" pedals - fuzz, diode distortion pedal, analog chorus, treble boost, one should consider the Chinese pedals as a way of learning what these things sound like, how they "feel" under your fingers. Particularly fuzz pedals, of which there are a gazillion varieties and flavors. 


The Arc of Labeling Compulsion and Genres of the 2000's

 There was a time, back in the pleistocene epoch, when you went to a "record store" to PURCHASE recordings in the form of vinyl plastic records.

 In such places, there would be bins of records.  They would be organized thusly:


 That was it.

 For example, the Star Wars soundtrack wasn't found under "soundtracks".  It was in the "CLASSICAL" section.  Electronic music like Kraftwerk wasn't in "EDM/DANCE" or "ELECTRONIC" or some such, it was not jazz, it was not classical or country music - so it was in "ROCK".

 (Browsing through Spotify nomenclature...) 

James Taylor wasn't "FAMILY FOLK MUSIC" (???).  Rush wasn't "PROGRESSIVE METAL".  The Clash wasn't "BRITISH PUNK".  Black Sabbath wasn't "DOOM METAL".  

 The effective thinking was "if it's not country music, it's rock music".  

Likewise, pop radio stations in the 70's played music that sometimes would be found in the "COUNTRY" bins, sometimes "ROCK" - occasionally even "JAZZ" and "CLASSICAL".  

 Because it was about MUSIC.  Not an exercise in how well something fits a description.  Musicians made music that was labeled after the fact - because it was presumed it would simply fall into one of those categories. 

 It's my belief that's why pop music defied categorization in the 70's.  

 In the 2000's we had Peak Genre Categorization.  I found myself having conversations with students about what bands were "emo" (an invented by the record industry label for promotion) - with zero consensus between different students.  Metal students were obsessed with focusing on specic sub-genres: Northern Swedish Death Metal, West Coast Screamo, Emo-Screamo, whether pig squeals were acceptable but not cookie monster growls, whether there could be a chorus in a song, whether there could be melody, whether there could be one or two guitar players... on and on.

 In the year 2020, nobody purchases music anymore, you subscribe.  But the damage is done; everyone is fitting a niche.  It's ingrained that music has to not exceed parameters.  So now there are a series of about a dozen default categories, more granular than the 70's.  They are fenced off, once shouldn't dare cross.  It's codifed, it's the law.   

 It's amusing though, that some hybridization is accepted in each "genre" by no acknowledgment that it's occurred.  "Country" music today shares more in common with hair band metal from the 80's and hip hop drum beats than "country music" pre-2000 (I'd go further and say "Post Garth Brooks Era").  European dance music almost always has sampled metal guitar pads, but you'd never see a guitar player on stage with a dj.  Metal bands will have choruses that share identical chord progressions with the lightest elevator-friendly pop music.  

 Superficially it would seem that these hybrids run counter to my premise, but they're very specific hybridizations; new breeds that bear genetic semblance to wolves but are distinctly poodles, huskies, dachshunds.  Mutts are frowned upon in general.

 As a musician/guitar player, it presents a rigid reality.  If you really only prefer one specific hybrid, it works out.  If you like more than one style, then it's cognitive dissonance.  I've seen it happening to others, and myself: do you fence off what you create and do, or allow it to try to create a new "acceptable" hybrid?  This buried context has been stifling, and squashes a lot of interest in doing music for people today.  Which is bad - I've seen people face this without being aware of it, knowing that what they want to do is not *exactly* one of the Acceptable Forms, and instead of deciding to either stay within boundaries or strike out against them, the feeling is "failure".   People just stop.

 Being aware of this view of reality is something the Modern Musician has to know and embrace  because it streamlines the process, while preventing impractical flights of whimsy.