Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Suit & Tie Guy - live at the Peoria Riverfront Museum

Club sounds, conversations; could be real, could be recorded. Hard to say, actually. Music almost in the background, but as the bass drones start to take over my attention the club seems to fade away and we slowly take off, almost as if it’s the soundtrack to an otherwise silent airship journey. Not sure what I was expecting, perhaps bleeps and bloops, sequencers run amok. Hadn’t expected this slow rise above the landscape though.

Even the simple single-note lines seem to be full of texture. Thick with reverb, moving in, out, around us, pulling us onward. For some reason I expected robots, what I got was deep humanity. And then those organ tones come in, hypnotic in their warbling timbre and surprising just on the fact of their existence. And hey, perhaps some percussive bleeps and bloops along with the organ. Finally! Everything here is synthetic, but also wholly organic. Slow, gracious, calm, beauteous. Robots with human hands, human hands wrangling robots. Pure single held note. Then, surprisingly modulated, beyond expectation. Then key change sneaking up on us, and we’re into Part 2.

The beat takes over, feels like it’s speeding up, although that might only be because our head’s now nodding along to the rhythm. Vaguely plinky-plunky Japanese somehow, but now a different organ grounds us. Not church style, not jazz style, but there almost as pure texture. Incredibly refreshing because you’re just so jazzed it’s not synth strings the way it always is. (Note to self: Organ!) It’s hypnotizing, in its peacefulness, still propelled by that great beat. Keep having to remind myself it’s live, and the further in I get the more I wish I’d been there. 

And of course, just as you’re comfortable, key change. Baseline has me hooked. Head again bopping along. Changes coming fast and furious, yet somehow slowly and calmly at the same time. It’s evolution, somehow musically expressed. Wait a second, when did those drums come in? All of a sudden they’re there, except it happened somehow slowly, over time. Yeah, I’m hooked. Dagnabbit, major change happened again! But this time it’s that I only just noticed the drums have disappeared. 

And then the thickest of thin buzzy textures take us into Part 3, where we find ourselves in the land of slow and peaceful texture. Eyes closed, soaking it in, knowing we’ll get there, to some other place, almost without noticing the change.

Yup, just as I predicted. Somehow, indeed unnoticed, we’re in the middle of treated pianos, and it somehow wasn’t even a surprise now that we’re here.

Yes, now Part 4. Distinctly different from Part 3, but a transition so smooth you might not have noticed. That quiet stick tip tattoo finding its mates, over time becoming another propulsive rhythm, moving us along. And yet we’re still also deep in the slow reverb, now joined by staccato synth lines, echoed clean, forming a backbone for yet another kind of utterly organic organ, filling the space with still more texture. The rhythm is infectious, it’s got me going. Just right. Drums, sequencers, reverb, echo, organ. It’s all there.

I started listening and writing in daylight, now it’s full dark, the only light coming from my screen as I type. But if I close my eyes I can see the lights flow by on the sequencer, see the (synthetic) Leslie spinning, see all the heads bobbing along with mine. Man, if only I’d known. Would’ve been great to see this done live instead of just listening in headphones in iTunes. 

And even as we slowly go from joyful head bopping into full on creep-out chaos right there at the end I just had to almost laugh along with it all. Fantastic. Was sorry it was over, but also relieved I could finally let go of the breath I’d been holding the whole time. Hadn’t even noticed I’d been on the edge of my seat, was completely immersed.

Suit & Tie Guy - live at the Peoria Riverfront Museum

Album cover photograph by Caleb Condit

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mala Kunia, new from Tangerine Dream

Mala Kunia, new from Tangerine Dream. I had many reactions when I first played this album, all of them good, some of them astounded. Mostly though I felt like I was home after a long time away. Now nobody get offended, but to me *this* is Tangerine Dream. Pulsing rhythms, interwoven melodies, pounding drums, soaring guitar, sequencers aplenty, with the bands signature textures underneath it all laying the foundation.

Except it’s new, too. Bit crushers on the drums à la Nine Inch Nails, some sequences that feel like they could be straight out of Synergy, twiddly little, well, sounds, everywhere, as if there were a host of forest creatures infesting the studio. Reminiscent of Robert Rich, of course. And I’m sure Tangerine Dream were influences on all of these, but it’s good to be surprised by all these little things on a Tangerine Dream album. 

But it’s classic Tangerine Dream as well. Synth leads filled with more sonic texture than you could believe, and those shimmering pads everywhere, the solid concrete framework it all hangs on, the burbling sequencers that drive things forward. It’s classic Tangerine Dream. Analog synth leads solid as granite, digital synth leads shimmering like the northern lights, even some funky bass lines at times. 

New personnel; don’t know anything about them yet. Perhaps that’s a bit of the reason for their less pop song sound nowadays. Or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention recently. And it’s not like I’ve ignored them for the past 20 years. I do have 43 of their albums in iTunes after all. It’s just that there’s something about this album that’s captured me, maybe something I was missing that I didn’t realize wasn’t there any more. 

It’s there now though.

One thing to note is that according to Edgar Froese this is the beginning of the final chapter for his band’s almost 50 year run. Mala Kunia is apparently to be the first in a series of albums called “The Quantum Years,” culminating in the 2017 anniversary of the band’s founding. Also, in the spring of 2015 there’s going to be a “fuller” release of this album as this one is only the overture to the full version. You’ll still get your money’s worth this time out though as Mala Kunia is almost an hour long.

So stay tuned, it looks like the next three years (or maybe more properly their last three years) could be interesting ones for Tangerine Dream.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Larry Fast cuts some wax tracks. No, really.

Today was the annual Analog Heaven Northeast gathering but this year I had to pass it up because it also happened to be Edison Day at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. Normally these two events aren’t in any way connected but this year’s Edison Day wax cylinder recording demonstration featured none other than Larry Fast. It was simply too good an opportunity to pass up.

The demonstration was in a sense much more interesting then I expected, which doesn’t quite sound right but bear with me. It wasn’t “just” Fast playing his Kurzweil K2000VP, but it also wasn’t just a demonstration of Edison’s wax cylinder technology either. Although either one would have been quite satisfyingly enough, and that was certainly what I was expecting. What was much more interesting about the demo was that it was an experiment in using old technology in new ways, and I was not expecting that at all. The first part of the demonstration was Fast played Phobos and Deimos Go to Mars. Live, I might add. They recorded it on a wax cylinder and then played it back. Typical museum-style demonstration of wax cylinders. I could have left happy with just that because hey, it was Larry Fast, but they took it so much further.

Note that it wasn’t just Fast up there. There was also a Park Ranger, in full uniform. Unfortunately I didn’t catch his name but he turned out to be incredibly knowledgeable about the Edison wax cylinder system, was an entertaining and informative educator/lecturer, and was also basically working as the sound engineer for the recording session. He explained the whole process as well as giving us a bit of history. It seems that when they first set up a factory to make these cylinders what they’d do was have a performer come in for the day and play or sing their piece over and over. They’d record it each time onto maybe a dozen or so machines. They’d then repeat this process all day long until they had enough cylinders recorded. Also, this was a completely acoustic process. Just like today’s demonstration, each recorder had a large horn that picked up the sound and transferred it to the wax. The “problem” with this was that each horn heard a slightly different version as they were all in different places in the room. It was this “problem” that led the park into several years of research to try and find a matched set of cylinders from the same take. If that search is eventually successful it might be possible using modern recording technology to reconstruct a stereo recording, something unimagined back in the day.

And that’s what I mean about today’s session being more than just a simple demonstration. It was actually a proof-of-concept experiment in using wax cylinder technology to make stereo recordings. What Fast and the Park Ranger did was to record a Synergy piece with the left channel on one cylinder and the right on another. (They actually used four cylinders because you only get about two or three minutes per cylinder, so they had to use more than one per track.) So in a few weeks once they’ve had time to combine the tracks and synchronize the left and right channels we may have a new Synergy recording to enjoy, albeit in full “wax fidelity.”

Today’s Edison Day demonstration was more than “just” a simple demo that you typically might get to see in a museum, it was actually part of a research project in 100+-year-old recording technology.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The “New” Emerson Moog Modular System

Moogfest 2014 Keith Emerson

In some astounding news, well, at least for synth geeks, Moog has announced they’re making a new modular synthesizer. In a sense it’s not new as they’re apparently built-by-hand recreations of Keith Emerson’s giant custom modular system, for which he is justifiably famous. There are so many things which are just so unbelievably cool about Moog’s announcement though that when I first heard I was reduced to fits of giggles at their sheer audacity. The best part of all of this, aside from the fact that they’re doing it in the first place, is that they first announced they were making modulars again on April Fool’s Day. Now that was sheer marketing genius, and they “got” us all. Everyone’s been asking for years when Moog would make a modular, since after all that was how the company originally became known. So for them to announce on their web site on April Fool’s Day that they were making a modular, which was so obviously untrue since it was April Fool’s, was both hilarious and bittersweet. But to have it actually be true, well, they just totally punked us all! An actually true announcement that nobody on the planet would believe; I can’t imagine a better April Fool’s prank than that.

Seriously, I’ll try to stop gushing. I promise.

Perhaps a little (vastly abbreviated) history is in order. Moog (the person, not the company) originally made theremin kits. Without actually looking things up to get the dates right, and also greatly over-simplifying it all, when Bob Moog was in high school he had a home business making the early electronic instruments, I think since the 1950s. In the ’60s, as an engineer, he had the idea of controlling sound circuits using external voltages rather than by turning knobs, and from that one simple idea modern electronic music was born. So instead of altering the pitch, volume, or tone of a sound by hand, you could use voltages from somewhere else to control those parameters. Working with several musicians, Moog developed the various electronic synthesizer modules we take for granted today. Over a number of years the modules were “perfected,” and you could buy them in any combination you cared to. You’d give them your list of modules and they’d build them into some wooden cases for you. Except when I say “you could buy them” that’s totally not true because it was rather frightfully expensive. So Moog took his module ideas and built them into a smaller, hard-wired instrument. It wasn’t the big Moog patchable modular, but rather a small Moog non-modular. A Minimoog, if you will. And the rest is history, and electronic music took over the world. (Again, please excuse the somewhat large rather monstrous oversimplifications.)

So in the beginning, there was the giant Moog modular, and that’s how I and the rest of the world first heard of synthesizers. Not only did they sound weird (and cool) but they looked weird (and cool) as well. In a time when the electric guitar was still a new-ish thing, who would have thought a bookcase full of weird scientist electronics could be a musical instrument? But oh, it was. On record it was Wendy Carlos and Switched On Bach that showed us how, but in concert it was Keith Emerson using his giant modular synth for live rock ’n’ roll night after night that turned the world onto synthesizers. Rick Wakeman toured with perhaps half a dozen Minimoogs, which in itself was an amazing thing at the time, but it was Emerson’s giant modular that was perhaps what people thought of when they imagined a synthesizer. The Beatles had one, and the Monkees had one, but neither used them in public. Tangerine Dream famously toured with many modulars for many years but their music wasn’t something you heard on the radio so it was far less well known to the public (although it’s in perhaps dozens of movies, many of which you’ve seen). In popular culture, though, it was Emerson’s Moog modular you always thought of. 

And now Moog has announced they’re going to be making them again. Not many, and not cheap, and by hand rather than on an assembly line. They’re going to be more or less an exact recreation of Emerson’s. Exact same parts, exact same assembly, exact same designs. Not a modern version of what he had, but pretty much exactly what he has. The only bad thing is they specifically state that Emerson’s rocket launchers will not be included. Total bummer. But then again, to be fair, no pyrotechnics modules were included from the factory in the original Moogs either. Definitely an aftermarket add-on.

Photo of Keith Emerson at Moogfest 2014 by John Grabowski, from his Flickr stream

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Moog exhibit at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn

Triple Moog racks
Went to the Moog exhibit this afternoon at Rough Trade NYC in Brooklyn. It was small but completely amazing. The exhibit was upstairs in a small room above the main entrance. They had five stations, each one with a huge rack of synths. Also, downstairs in the Main Drag Music area was another smaller space that was more store-like and more focused on the various Moogerfoogers. 

Honestly it’s a bit hard to decide what my favorite part was. It’s hard to deny the appeal of the triple rack “modular” wall filled with Voyagers and Moogerfoogers, but for me it really had to have been the polyphonic Phatty tower that was the highlight. 

There were maybe 10 Slim Phattys in the tower, all slaved to a single Little Phatty that controlled them. Now, I have a Little Phatty Tribute Edition, and have played Moogs since I got my first one in 1980. So I went up to it and just naturally started playing. It was totally cool that when you turned a knob on the controller the entire tower’s knob lights changed with it. But the weird thing was that I almost didn’t even think of playing more than the single note at once. I’ve been playing Moogs for so long and they’ve only been one note at a time, so I had to actually mentally make myself play more than one. But once I did that, well, I almost don’t even know how to describe it. It was sheer Moog synthesizer power under my hands, playing huge chords making monster sounds. Almost at a loss for words to describe how it felt. 

Moog Phatty tower
Once I tore myself away from the PolyPhatty tower there were a number of other stations in the room. One was a drum station with a six-Voyager tower of its own. Another was a guitar station with six Moogerfoogers and 20 Minifoogers. Yes, 20. If that’s not enough effects power for any guitarist, well, I just can’t help you. 

And because I had to get home in plenty of time for the first Cosmos episode I didn’t even have a chance to mess with the other stations. And that’s not even mentioning the theremin, or the downstairs section. So I think I’ll actually go back next weekend seeing as how it’s there for the whole month. I’ll get there when they open and set aside more time so I’ll be able to really work with the equipment, take some closeups, take a quick movie of the Slim Phatty’s lights moving in synchrony, and take enough photos to make a panorama. I actually tried an iPhone one but the walls weren’t far enough away to make it work, so I’m hoping my regular camera and some software will work better.

So, if you’re in the New York City area, I highly recommend a visit to Rough Trade NYC for this Moog exhibit. It’s small, but it’s totally packed with Moog synth technology. Heck, it’s worth going for the Moog pocket protector alone!

My Moog pocket protector!