Burning Mirror - Desired:Purity
In the interest of sharing with some friends who might not have heard the music before, I recently resurrected some recordings from times long past. Burning Mirror was a project that began on a lark, turned into an elaborate joke, then later became a real band. But I’m ahead of myself.
Around Labor Day 1997 (I think) my friend Nick Bretz and I decided to put his excellent home recording gear and engineering skills to good use and lay down a few tracks. We’d recently discovered the album Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis) by Praxis which, if you’ve not heard it, is a record by a revolving cast led by Bill Laswell, an avant-garde smorgasbord of electronica, metal and other influences featuring Buckethead and Bootsy Collins. That should give you the idea. This album informed a certain freedom of vision and reminded me that so much of the music I love is free of boundaries. Though the Praxis album featured a real drummer (the infamous Brain, no less), the music still featured a somewhat synthetic texture, the style of which inspired us to build basic tracks with loops and drum samples. And off we went.
I’m going to run through the album track-by-track here in an effort to get the recollections all down before they escape me or are further mutated by the fog, feathers and sands of time. If you’d like to listen in and get a sample of the absurd mythology we built up around the project, please go here.
This opening atmospheric collage of digital racket provides a decent thesis for the entire album—and for the prevailing state of mind at the time of these recordings. The patchwork statement, “There is no meaning,” goes straight to the heart of the Dadaist leanings of its creators. Additionally, this track was placed so that if the CD were to be played on repeat, it would answer the question posed by its bookend, the album closer “Coins”: “What is the meaning?”
Battle of Fractions
The first proper song on the album was also (as I recall it) the first recorded. “Battle” almost didn’t make it to the real world. It was the victim of one of multiple digital storage failures suffered during the production. (Another example that didn’t make it: Somewhere in a landfill on some unsalvageable drive exists/does not exist a piece called “Infra-black Prism,” a casualty with elegant chords which will never be heard by humans.) When the original tracks were lost what remained was an incomplete test mix, a “flattened” version of the number which was layered upon. I know the harmony guitars during the “verses” were added post-crash. Aside from that I can’t be sure. The guitar solo at 1:02 was played by muting the strings near the nut with the right hand and hammering all the notes in what was meant to be some sort of fluid, quasi-Allan Holsdworth excursion. Just one such idea that didn’t quite get there, but is still pretty cool.
Incidentally, “Fractions” is the only link between Burning Mirror the recording concept and Burning Mirror the live band. It was played live at each of the group’s 13 or so shows.
You Call that Rust?
This song gains much of its character from the Roland VG-8 guitar synth. That’s its sound on the gargantuan main theme. I’ve always liked how the atmosphere opens up at 1:19 with Nick’s lyrical melody and accompanying acoustic guitars (done with a solid body Epiphone through the Roland) even though the boxy and claustrophobic drum pattern remains constant. Shades of Peter Gabriel? Maybe.
Speaking of equipment, the VG-8 is just one piece of gear used on this project that was later retired, stolen or otherwise misappropriated. I won’t get into the gory details, but it—along with some great guitars—was absconded with by someone with access and opinion that they were the rightful owners. It took me a long while to get over all that. But the galaxy will make all things right in the end.
The quote that ends the song, “Disc one,” marks the first appearance of another theme, the introduction of Latenight John.
Gods, Devils, Etc. …
The main riff was played on a drop-D tuned Gibson (either a Marauder or missing Les Paul Custom). It consists of descending then ascending chromatic lines sauced up with octave displacement. I just re-learned the part—pretty slick. Fairly bitchen solo at :58, though the rhythmic phrasing strikes me as somewhat erratic now. It’s an interesting reminder of what I played like 14 years ago.
As the guitar break ends a couple of things happen. First, there’s some crowd noise lifted from Journey Captured. I hope Herbie Herbert doesn’t come after me. At the same time there is a succession of 16th note triplets on the bass (Epiphone 5-string, also stolen). Those were played finger-style; in addition to guitar, I was teaching a lot of bass at that time, so that skill got put to use.
I’ve been circumlocuting the fact that all was not exactly right with the world at the time of these recordings. In fact, my life was already in the process of going off the rails, though I couldn’t quite realize or face that at the time—more gory details that shall be omitted and which are not important because eventually life moved to an amazing place.
At any rate, “Listen Louder” was originally written with lyrics addressing aspects of the situation. It was performed once or twice as part of an acoustic duo, possibly at a Barnes & Noble in Independence, MO (talk about gory details). When the decision was made to record a version of the song for Burning Mirror, my roller coaster of thoughts had gone another direction and I no longer believed in or supported the lyrics. So it’s an instrumental.
I’ve always been pleased with the arrangement of this one, with its flute-like festooneries popping in and out, fake Hammond/Leslie, sprinkled piano. I was studying Steely Dan arrangements around the time I was writing “Listen,” a fact that would be reflected in some of the chord inversions were you to drill down that far. The chords to the solo are F#m – Em, implying D if you’d like to play along.
To Explore the Sea
Wherein we pretend to be on side two of Pink Floyd Animals or something. There was a lot of improvisation in the creation of Desired:Purity. The chords to “Explore” were born out of some long forgotten open tuning. This is most evident in the clean tone guitar solo at 3:38, a part that was played in that unfamiliar tuning. Guitarists will tell you that improvising in an alien tuning, while somewhat liberating, is akin to walking on ice with someone else’s feet. A spacious track.
I am a Robot!
Oh man. Layers and layers of guitar madness—I think I count five or six interlocking parts in the A section, the themes of which are varied throughout the track. I think I wrote out all the parts between guitar students at a store in Belton, MO. The site of that store now contains a Little Caesar’s carry-out pizza shop. Does it all make sense?
Amidst the late ’90s studio trickery there are some plain old analog parts. One in particular that comes to mind is the really bizarre high-pitched squeal that accompanies the sample, “You are a robot.” That’s nothing more than Nick’s voice. Into a microphone. (It can be heard in all its glory at 1:27 and 3:07 just before the majestic [?] return of the main theme.) He has since noted that his throat will no longer make such sounds.
At 1:11 comes another solo with which I’m still pretty happy. Behind that solo is … me riffing with Abe Laboriel Jr. Yeah, ok, it’s from a sample library. But hey—we’re groovin’ back there!
The piano solo at 1:56 was not actually played, but pieced together in a stepwise way for playback. We were going for the controlled madness of Mike Garson on David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. That just goes to show you how great he is. Not sure what inspired the ensuing interlude. Creepy.
This track was a bitch to mix.
Player with Matches
Another labyrinth of guitar variations which might’ve been written in the same manner as the above. I love the angular rhythm shift at 1:08. That type of tempo switch almost certainly came from years of listening to Anthrax. What a huge sound and multifaceted sound in that section. The following variation features slide guitar that was played using a screwdriver, I believe.
The weird breakdown at about 3:00 contains sounds courtesy of my old ART rackmount processor. The patch was called “Spaceman (+) 7″ or some such ridiculousness. Another big pain in the ass to mix down.
Latenight John returns to introduce this sprawling piece of improvisation. I think this was recorded as a live duet between Nick on keyboard (a Kurzweil PC88) and me on guitar—we just set the rhythm loop and let it go. You can certainly hear the searching at times, although I’ve heard it so many times that this is just the way it goes. I’d like to apologize for the exceedingly Santana-like lick at 2:23; I listened to Borboletta one too many times in high school, you see.
I’ve been astonished in the intervening years as to how subtle-to-nonexistent my vibrato sometimes is. It’s very apparent on “Sky.” Not sure how I feel about that.
In some cases I’m not sure which came first, the title, the music, or the concept. Regardless of its genesis, the story behind this song is that a university music composition professor (Yoke Pulliam) sets about to write his ultimate piece of music. Only as he jots the last note down (with India ink on parchment) does he realize he’s written the exact same piece he’s written countless times before. With a sigh he places the page on one of untold piles of manuscript paper jamming his apartment.
The chord progression was written on guitar and then arranged for piano.
The Hair that Won’t Sleep
Another primarily improvised, later decorated piece. There’s some nice thematic development here. The bass on this and one other track was played by a Kansas City area artist and musician who left my orbit and has not returned. I’ll tell you the story some life over a beer and a taco, if you like. See 2:55 for the conceptual continuity of Latenight John. This threading together of the project with recurring motifs is pure Zappa.
Moebius Owl Skulls
This track has overlapping bass parts played by yours truly. It also contains the famous line, “The town’s own berry is like a metaphor.” Yeah. Would you like to see a video that played in an obscure film festival or two? Ok, then:
Brain, Heart, Other Devices
This is another one of the first bits recorded for the project. It’s … frantic.
Last Days of Logic
That first quote may or may not be lifted from a Hendrix album. Over the years this has grown to be an unexpected favorite of mine. The percussion parts lumbering along in the background were precisely composed, then executed on the Kurzweil’s weighted keyboard with the accuracy of a disinterested high school marching band sitting in the stands in late October. There’s some backwards guitar at the end that I believe was flown in from another song, xenochrony style.
Man Without Sanity
Another of the bridging vignettes, the maddening sound of this track perfectly summarizes several years of my life. In another instance of conceptual continuity, playing somewhere overhead is a distorted portion of the song “All Eyes West” (I think), an acoustic solo piece from another album of mine.
The System is Vague
This sounds pretty heavy, but it’s a compression stunt. The chunky guitar parts were recorded at a whisper late at night. “System” contains polyrhythmic events and a pseudo-Michael Schenker interlude. More Abe Jr. I think.
No, that’s not really a banjo; it’s the Roland VG-8. The rhythmic background is a loop created from a CD of railroad sounds. At 1:07 you can hear a stuttering rhythmic motif, the presence of which was inspired by Zappa’s “Eat That Question.”And I think that clean tone guitar is in another long lost tuning.
An odd interlude.
This is a dark and drifty piece that was likely largely influenced by Aphex Twin. The introduction has the sounds of digital gongs and analog reverb stunts. This is soundtrack music for falling down a space well.
Desired:Purity back cover