What about it?
What about it?
Please listen to and/or download the album at Bandcamp.
Program notes and self-indulgent minutiae
According to the date on the folder, Absolute Ozone Robot was created in late December, 2012. Then it was mostly neglected for the next 23 months, occasionally receiving daylight and water. Finally I got tired of the project hanging over my head like a small, festering planet peopled by creatures missing arms and feet, and so on. And in December 2014 (with rusting apparatuses finally removed from my literal and spiritual driveways) I made the push to complete the thing. Yeah, so, here it is.
Absolute Ozone Robot (the album’s third official title) was realized entirely on a MacBook, utilizing a borrowed microphone, some software of dubious origin and every guitar I own. Here’s a guided tour:
01 “Pink Opera Glasses”
Wherein an atmosphere is established. Wouldn’t you like to come in?
02 “Gold Coin Eyes”
And, welcome. This spacious construction was intended to be the first movement of a single 50-minute piece. Maybe next time. Nestled among the harmonized feedback and drifty percussion there’s some sound that reminds me of the shitty werewolf in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. Not even sure what that is anymore. Anyway, this track introduces the first of many field recordings grafted into the music, in this case some ambient racket from the Washington D.C. subway as captured by my phone. There is no record of the tuning introduced at 2:44; guess I won’t play this one (or anything else here) live. “Gold Coin Eyes” (name borrowed from a phrase in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, I believe) was one of the first pieces recorded and one of the last finished, the sawtooth-y synth part being added in the 11th hour.
03 “Filthy Science”
That’s my idea of a I-IV-V riff. (Right here there used to be some self critical, second guessing talk. Instead, here’s a quote from John Cage: “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I feel it’s not beautiful? And very shortly you discover there is no reason.”) The outro introduces the idea of overlapping rhythms which will be prevalent throughout, along with some found sound.
04 “Black Velocities”
Title phrase lifted from some other sci-fi book. The song’s main riff was conceived at double the speed, but reveals more of its facets as it came to rest. I went full on “fake Michael Schenker” in that middle harmony section. Forgive me. While many of the guitar solos contained here were very (too?) stream-of-consciousness, this one was mapped out.
05 “Migration Hypnosis”
Most of the tracks on AOR were composed organically and arranged via editing: A progression, riff, or beat would suggest another part, then a complimentary section, and eventually a “song” would take form. “Migration Hypnosis,” on the other hand, was totally written out out on paper beforehand. Ehhhr, with the exception of that middle section. And about that: Before I realized what was happening, I wound up with several pieces that include “weirdness freakout bridges,” interrupters that send the proceedings off into a confusing miasma of tangled thoughts (not unlike a conversation among many I know). Call it a motif.
06 “Here to Identify the Head (featuring Forklift Chase)”
I consider this the centerpiece of the album, a sun around which the 11 neighboring tracks revolve. I guess I was thinking Fripp/Belew King Crimson when assembly of this prickly tangle of polyrhythmic parts began. I’m very pleased where it all went. The “Forklift Chase” section was one of the final bits recorded, a late addition to the song and a way to take it in another direction (and a chance for another polyrhythm—5/4 versus 4/4 in this case, for those scoring at home). Regarding that “Forklift” riff: I knew what the atmosphere of notes would be but was unsure about the rhythmic phrasing. Then I was teaching a student the bass line to “Blood & Roses” by The Smithereens and … the rest is history.
I had the worst time mastering “Head.” A few failed runs told me to return to the original track for a remix/EQ, which eventually did the trick, such as the trick is. Incidentally, I was making an A/B comparison between these tracks and Culture Clash by The Aristocrats. That thing is mastered like a mother and I lose—but it was a great benchmark.
Another side note: About three days before I finished mixing these tracks a friend made some passing comment to the effect of, “do they even do fade outs on records anymore?” (I think someone had put on Toto IV – seriously). Well, AOR, perhaps owing to its studio-born nature, is full of fades. So there you go.
07 “The Traveling Ear”
I had just taken possession of a Joyo Classic Flanger pedal.
08 “Soil Sample”
It’s just a little ol’ asylum blues stomp about contaminated earth. A lot of the guitars on AOR were recorded at a fairly low volume and with me positioned fairly near the microphone. The result is that sometimes there’s an interesting blend of the sound coming out of the amp with the actual sound of the unamplified strings in the room. That texture can be heard here on both guitar parts.
09 “The Myth of Shared Hydraulics”
The David Byrne/Brian Eno album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was a subliminal driver for this one. And the brief clean tone guitar solo contains an accidental reference to “Total Mass Retain” by Yes, so we’re all over the map here. When the melody is restated at 1:44 it has been shifted by an eighth note on purpose. I think it’s cool how it adapts in the busy environment. Midday church bells from Astoria, Queens can be heard during the fade.
10 “A Radar is Born”
Now isn’t that a pretty chord? “Radar” was born with the B section riff, which haunted by brain while driving for hours on I-29 during the late summer of 2014. The entire song is another example of the slippery rhythms that permeate AOR: The feel is slightly unhinged, yet not overtly nuts like some of the other dance numbers herein. The guitar solo section features a bed (queen size with paisley comforter) of harmonized bass, making it a distant relative of “Walk on the Wild Side.”
11 “Femur Simulator 2″
Winding down now. This one came to life while visiting some friends’ lake house. As such I consider it a strange souvenir of the Ozarks. “FS2″ contains another freakout bridge, this one featuring some more found audio along with a sample of “The Frown Returns” from the Gentleman Echo album Research Arc.
12 “Disembarker X”
“Disembarker X” is the one who departs, who steals away into the amethyst evening, possibly without finishing his or her drink (but probably doing so). “Disembarker X” is the sound of Absolute Ozone Robot signing off.
Thanks and a tip of the space helmet to:
Venus for enduring the rumbling and clanging emanating from my office; Mas for the Yeti; Benny for Fender delivery and everything always; Ryan for enduring the mixing process; Rex Woodwind for soup; The Great Vehicle; Alberto and Dahveed from Giant Deer Bear; Duke Wisdom; and to the mysterious “Chaucer” who painted the version of Paul Klee’s “Senecio” that serves as the album cover—purchased in an antique mall in Harrisonville, MO. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?!
Finally: This album, of course, is dedicated to Jim Van Horn, 1947-2014. I used a few of his guitars on here and their Juju made it all the better.
You have Googled yourself, right? If not, you really should because you might find a gem like the above. “Troy Van Horn” isn’t exactly a common name, but there seems to be a another music-scene-related version that’s not yours truly in the Kansas City area, a promoter of apparently debatable reputation. So, when he searches himself, he finds a bunch of stuff about guitar playing and, I guess, a bunch of people (justifiably or not, I have no clue) bitching about him on discussion boards. Anyway, I have no idea who “Tyger Rhames” is, but thanks for having my back!
What about it?
“Compound Arpeggios No. 1,” as the name suggests, comprises a series of arpeggios glued together, a confluence of patterns which yields distinctive results, both melodically and in terms of fretboard execution. The chords outlined here are linked up based on neck geography: The last note of the first shape (Gm) is a half step away from the first note of the next shape (B) and so on. This mechanical closeness is what adjacent chords have in common, as opposed to being unified by key. Taken as a whole, then, the pattern is tonally ambiguous, lacking a gravitational center. If you dig in, however, you’ll notice that alternating chords go together: Gm, F and Am (chords 1, 3, 5 in the sequence) all belong to the key of F major; B, F# and G#m (chords 2, 4, 6) belong to F# major. This internal logic keeps the thing from sounding entirely chaotic.
First of all, these two measures function as an exercise. If you’re one who practices arpeggios, chances are that you’ve worked with straightforward major or minor triad-based patterns. Those sound great and are easy to apply. But here we have material with peculiar twists and turns which melds chords in various inversions. The unfamiliarity of the structures will make the music more challenging to perform at first. And honing dexterity never hurt any guitarist. Next—and more importantly—compounding arpeggios as a concept is meant to make you think outside the confines of standard guitar procedure. We’ve all heard those guitarists who out of habit—though dazzlingly—trot out the same old sweep patterns in solo after solo, which is ultimately as interesting as wallpaper. The idea is to get creative and fashion new patterns that work inside the music you’re playing. What’s more, the concept can be applied to composing ear-twisting riffs or unearthly melodies. This theory, by the way, was inspired by Nicolas Slonimsky’s mammoth Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.
A note on picking: There are multiple ways to approach this example; the indicated pattern employs a combination of alternate and directional (sweep) picking.
Click here to download a PDF of “Compound Arpeggios No. 1.”
Wormhole Guitar is a journey through time and/or space. Maybe.
Dusting off a video lesson: In late 2013 I was fortunate enough to find myself among the ten finalists for TrueFire’s “Next Top Guitar Instructor” competition. For those who don’t know, TrueFire is a massive interactive guitar instruction site featuring (and operated by) some very talented and respected figures in the world of guitar—and once in awhile the likes of yours truly. The competition involved several weeks of voting on video lessons submitted by the ten contestants. In the end, I got utterly destroyed, but that’s alright; it was a great experience and I got to interact with some fascinating musicians as well as have my playing and teaching exposed to a large audience.
Featured here, for posterity, is the video I presented as an audition for the competition, an esoteric little lesson that did the trick. (The contest videos themselves are still live on TrueFire’s YouTube channel. Make sure to read the user comments for insightful arguments on music theory topics, remarks about my hair and so on.)
And while you’re at it, click here to download the transcription of “Hybrid-picked legato triple stops.”
Sometime in the late ’80s (I think), a close friend of mind (and fellow guitar fanatic) traded some lesser amp and a couple of shotguns to my dad for this ’77 (I believe) Fender Pro Reverb. For years I told him that if he ever wanted to get rid of the thing, I’d need first shot. Well, he got rid of it, alright: He brought the amp to my place and gave it to me. Thank you, Dave Benscoter. This baby sounds gorgeous.
(In order to not really back up that last statement, here is an iPhone video of the amp in action with a Les Paul. The piece is called “The Human Voice.”)
This is another article that appeared on the long deceased Grace & Fury website. Robert Pollard, of course, is the driving force behind the iconic Guided By Voices, a band that rose from lo-fi indie rock obscurity to bonafide rock stardom – sort of. Though they had some decent exposure, they were always a little too weird and contrary to become widespread darlings of airplay or promotion.
Around the release of the album Isolation Drills some friends and I had a band called The Official Ironmen. We played all GbV and Pollard songs at a time when “tribute bands” and “tribute albums” weren’t quite as overwrought as they have become. Basically it was just a blast to play this great music, hang out, and drink beer. Though the songs were not difficult or outwardly complex, the guitar teacher in me, absorbing a body of work, observed recurring musical themes. What follows is a discussion of my observations.
Interesting (?) footnote: Once upon a time this article was linked to from the band’s official website, perhaps imbuing it with some sort of historic legitimacy.
Songwriters, like artists working in any field for an extended period of time and producing a large volume of work, walk a fine line between self repetition and assertion of personal style via recurring motifs or compositional elements. A great artist is one who is prolific yet constantly inventive. Guided By Voices’ captain and chief songwriter Robert Pollard is one such person. If Paul McCartney or Andy Partridge hasn’t already written a certain great melody, chances are Pollard has. And prolific? Someday we may need to have a scholarly cataloging of his works, ala Mozart’s Kochel: Pollard himself estimates that he may have written 5000 songs! While all of these may not be fully realized and arranged, you can bet that most of them contain at least one great hook.
While Bob Pollard is excessively productive and owns a gift for mercurial melody, an essay of the material he has written nevertheless points out certain traits which may be seen as cornerstones of his compositional method. The following examples will outline several of the more common conventions that Pollard constantly re-disguises as great new songs.
I. Open String Drones/Arpeggios
This is a staple in the GbV galaxy. Ringing notes within a pattern or riff create a certain continuity of sound and lend an often simple pattern complex tonal and theoretical implications. The main pattern from “Tractor Rape Chain” (Bee Thousand) illustrates this clearly. The superimposition of simple dyads over a droning A yield a sonically dense series of chords.
The progression could be labeled simply E/A – C#/A – D/A – B/A – A. However, technically the inference which can be made is Aadd9 – C#m6 – D – B7 – A, a much more complicated reading which belies the riff’s simplicity.
This arpeggiated pattern from “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” (Under the Bushes Under the Stars) presents more of the same.
Here again, a rather self-explanatory sequence presents a progression which can be interpreted as Cadd9 – Fadd9 – Aadd11 – Dadd11 – G – Eb – F6 – G, the open strings providing added color to simple fifth shapes. A similar example of the open string arpeggio comes from “Wormhole” (Do the Collapse).
“Wormhole” also illustrates the use of dissonance and how in context (vis a vis the imminent resolution of the “unpleasing” notes) it does not sound incorrect. Further examples of this idea can be found in “Catfood on the Earwig” (Plantations of Pale Pink ep), “Cut-Out Witch” (Under the Bushes Under the Stars) and numerous other places.
II. The bVI
Another common harmonic maneuver of Robert Pollard is the chord change of a bVI. While not extremely uncommon in popular music, this can be a rather jarring modulation but one which makes complete sense in its surroundings. Again here, the context — the following chord, the vocal melody atop the seemingly “out of key” chord — allows the progression to work logically. Examples of this type of change can be found in the following:
“Surgical Focus” (Do the Collapse): the verse progression of F – C – Bb – F – Db – Bb – F contains said movement (F – Db). The bVI chord is directly followed by the IV which resolves back to the tonic of F.
“Much Better Mr. Buckles” (Do the Collapse): again the verse pattern, G – Bm – G – Bm – C – Eb – G, eventually lands on the bVI (Eb) which in this case directly resolves to the I chord, G.
“Underground Initiations” (Hold on Hope ep): The pre-chorus includes a progression similar to “Surgical Focus” above where the bVI chord is followed by the more theoretically “stable” IV: E – C – A.
As with any type of writing, be it composition of melody, chord progression or even rhythm, often the factor which seems to be angular or flat out incorrect proves to be a great hook. We just can’t wait to hear that odd element one more time.
III. Jagged Rhythms
Of course rhythmic themes can be inescapably catchy components of a piece of music. For all its brilliant harmonic content, when most people think of Ravel’s “Bolero” they think of its famous rhythm (a “bolero” being a Spanish dance form). Or to go in a completely opposite direction, some contemporary dance music may as well be devoid of melody all together, as long as the beat keeps pounding.
Throughout his work, Pollard has presented some rhythmic hooks which are as effective as his melodic ones. The best of these riffs are syncopated — full of holes and hiccups. While not exceedingly difficult to play, they are quite memorable. This theme from the title track of Pollard’s Waved Out is almost heavy metal in its relentlessness.
The great new album Isolation Drills features an addictive rhythmic pattern on “The Brides Have Hit Glass.” This motif which drives the songs verses becomes even more effective when contrasted with the other sections of the song.
The rather sharp rhythmic texture plays interestingly against the characteristically smooth maj7 chords which occupy the beats.
“Do Something Real” (Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department) features another hard rocking riff as its backbone:
This is another case where the pattern isn’t a constant assault, but instead a very effective theme which when returned to between verses moves the song forward aggressively.
Recently Bob Pollard advised audience members to “remember the four P’s: Pop, Psychedelic, Punk and Prog.” Certainly in a recording career which began in 1987 he and GBV have embraced elements of all of the above. In interviews he has cited favorites from the Who to Wire to Genesis. No doubt this broad foundation and fascination with rock music in general has had an impact on the constant freshness of Pollard’s output. At times it seems that if you immersed yourself in the dozens of albums put out under various band configurations and aliases, Robert Pollard himself could teach you all there is to know about rock and roll. The above examples are the briefest of introductions to the work of a singular figure in pop music today. Enjoy these observations, and then go to the Library of Pollard and discover your own. And spread the word.
Coming soon: a Taoist reading of Robert Pollard’s lyrics.
All music examples above written by Robert Pollard.