A Jazz-Prog-Rock Fusion Band’s Early Beginnings

Since going for anything musical full time in a professional capacity, I decided to form my very own jazz-prog-rock band with two guys from graduate school, namely Diamond Manuel on trombone and Jeffrey Abanto on guitar, bassist RJ Sy (Karl Roy Band, Kastigo, etc.), and drumming virtuoso and chef KC Puerto. Together, we’re Hi-5! Nah, just kidding. We’re an unnamed jazz-prog-rock fusion band that is currently in its infancy. The video above is an excerpt from our two-hour first rehearsal session together where we had the audacity to take a crack at Alan Pasqua’s “Proto Cosmos” (popularized by the Tony Williams’ Lifetime band and Allan Holdsworth). I am quite pleased with our first session together as we were able to go through a somewhat tricky piece and survive it, hahaha! Other than this piece, we also had loads of fun with a free improvisation session. Hopefully, we’ll start working on original music as well as a couple of covers to spice things up.

The spark of it, all, however, was this free improv session with Diamond:

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Prog/Dream Theater Fan Humor with PSMS and Devin Townsend @ Sea

I’m a Dream Theater fan. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m also not ashamed to admit that I like every Dream Theater album, and that includes the much reviled “Falling Into Infinity”. This is the band that got me into prog in the first place. Though largely known for extremely lengthy complex prog metal masterpieces like “Scenes From a Memory”, they do have good short tunes too, like this one:

This, my readers, is “Burning My Soul”, a rather serious hate/rant song with lyrics by Mike Portnoy. It was originally a lengthy song with a slower tempo instrumental section (which became, through executive meddling and producer manipulation, a separate instrumental called “Hell’s Kitchen”). Anyway, enough of that history. It’s a pretty serious sounding song, right? The video above demonstrates a fragment of Dream Theater’s impeccable musicianship skills. However, my new favorite version of this song is this bootleg video from “Progressive Nation at Sea 2014”, performed by ex-DT members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian (Keys) with Tony MacAlpine (Guitar), Billy Sheehan (Bass). and Devin Townsend on vocals and stand-up comedy antics:

One comment posted said that this is a train wreck done in style. I’d say in great humourous style. It’s as if Frank Zappa came to life with Devin Townsend’s vocal cords. If you’re a musician and a fan of Dream Theater and Devin Townsend, I would bet that you will find this to be funny. If you’re not enjoying and laughing at this then I feel very sorry for you.

Early Evening at Cycfi Research, Inc.

Last Saturday, I got invited by the man behind the Cycfi Alpha, Mr. Joel de Guzman, to visit his facility somewhere in Quezon City to discuss ideas and possibilities regarding music as well as the innovative projects he undertakes. Realizing that this was one of those opportunities that I should not miss, I gave Joel my schedule and when I would be able to go visit. Fast forward to around 5:45 p.m. yesterday, I was with my son at the gates of what appeared to be a 21st-century-state-of-the-art residence, complete with tight security, a laboratory, and a properly built and well equipped studio. The first impression I got was he pushed the concept of SoHo to the extreme. The gate was opened and Joel welcomed us into his home office and conference room.

Joel de Guzman Cycfi Research Inc

(Mr. Joel de Guzman)

Joel de Guzman is one of those rare, forward-thinking individuals. He is an IT consultant, software developer, musician, instrument maker, and open-source advocate. It’s not off target to say that he’s the local Bob Moog. He strongly believes in give-and-you-shall-receive philosophy so much that he posts his designs and concepts freely on the web which include his hexaphonic pickup design and the carbon-fiber/glass truss rod. He is a living testimony of a person who has been blessed so much because of his belief in giving. One could easily see that the gates and storehouses of heaven have opened up for him because of his unselfish attitude in life.

We talked about a lot of things, mostly exciting and forward-looking ideas for making music. Right there and then, I realized that I was in a presence of a genius. The things we were talking about were mindblowing to say the least. Joel was particular about how he could use waveshaping to explore new timbres and techniques when using the full-range hexaphonic pickup that he has been developing. The math of it all was mind-boggling to me (being a person who has struggled with math) but I guess I had enough knowhow to understand how I could use it. The idea of synthesis using the guitar’s strings and pickups as an oscillator has been expored by a number of other institutions. Companies like EHX have played with the idea by developing the POG and HOG pedals and Moog Music even has its own guitar for that purpose, but Joel made me realize that you could do more than that with his full-range pickup, a parametric EQ, and a waveshaper. He also had the idea of hiring me as his child’s music theory tutor. Sadly, I could not accommodate his request, given the distance I would have to travel to go there and give lessons.

After discussing ideas about how we could work together, Joel gave us a tour of his facility. The Alpha prototype was in the process of a paint job so he was not able to demonstrate how it sounded like. We went into his recording studio and he showed me a Fender Stratocaster with the prototype hex pickup installed. The pickup sounded rich on a Marshall combo that the guitar was plugged into. More than that, the hexaphonic output of his pickup was also connected to his Logic Pro based DAW. How it sounded like was something I have never heard on any other guitar. It was phenomenal! Imagine having individual control over each string having its own excusive output routed to a dedicated channel. Andres Segovia once said that the guitar is an orchestra unto itself. Joel’s hexaphonic pickup pushes that to a whole new level. I was very fortunate enough to have tried it for myself.

Mark@Cycfi Research Inc 01-28-2014

(The author smiling like an idiot with Joel’s Fender Strat and the Cycfi Hexaphonic Pickup)

It sounded crazy good with each string having a different position in the sound field starting with the low E string panned hard right and the high E string panned hard left. Since the pickup had a flat frequency response of 20 to 20,000 Hz, you could do all kinds of things with it and a parametric EQ. One of Joel’s intentions in developing this pickup is to disprove the idea that a full-range pickup is brittle sounding. Upon strumming my first chord on his guitar, I realized that he was right. Noodling with Joel’s Strat for a bit made me see all sorts of things that you can do with it. Some of the more basic things I thought I can do with it is faking an acoustic guitar with a solid-body electric (without the need for piezo saddles) and simulate any kind of pickup. That’s just the tip of the iceberg! Applying distortion to it while it is rigged in a hexaphonic manner was very interesting: full triads sounded very nice and very different. Rather than the aggressive high gain sound you usually expect from your typical humbuckers running into Marshall stack, it sounded more like a guitar orchestra. You could actually play your thirds with the gain all the way up to 10 without sounding harsh or dissonant. I could already imagine setting up six amps in a room or hall, surrounding both guitarist and audience, with each string’s signal going through each amp, exuding music like you’ve never heard before. An added bonus is that the pickup is so quiet even with distortion that the only thing a noise gate would do in this instance is to turn down the ambiance from the amp itself. Another thing currently in development is for this pickup to function as a sustainer. Once Cycfi Research finalizes the design of this pickup, I’m very sure that the serious musician will have to rethink about how to make a sound with a guitar. The question of single-coil versus humbucker would not matter with this kind of pickup. Rather than getting a pickup installed to give your guitar a certain kind of character, you can get the exact kind of voicing you want with this hexaphonic pickup by just using EQ.

Cycfi Hexaphonic Pickup Prototype

(Cycfi Research Hexaphonic Pickup Prototype)

To cut the story short, I was very happy and honored to have met Joel. I hope that this will be the start of a mutually beneficial working relationship. More important than that is the fact that I have met a new friend who has the same sort of passion that I have for something new in music, finding ways to make music that’s really progressive.

To find out more about Joel and his projects, visit http://www.cycfi.com.

Billy Joel Was in a Metal Band

I’m pretty sure that hardcore Billy Joel fans already know this, but I only found out about this tidbit early this morning. And so, out of curiosity, I found out about this silly looking band called Attila. It’s an organ and drum duo. Here’s a YouTube clip showing the duo’s fondness for barbarian outfits and tons of meat going hand to hand with some of the silliest lyrics on the planet:

Okay, as far as my limited knowledge goes, three men spring to mind as individuals who properly used a Hammond organ in a heavier rock kind of context: Jon Lord, Keith Emerson, and Rick Wakeman. Billy Joel’s attempt was laudable although it seemed like there was too much processing going on that it sounds like a lot of noise most of the time. Perhaps he should have listened to stuff like “Tarkus” or “Highway Star” to figure out how organ in a heavy rock context should be done. Coupled with those atrocious lyrics, I’m not surprised why Mr. Piano Man called it “psychedelic bullshit”. Attila’s album though is remarkable as a sort of template for keyboard and drum duos. Perhaps Billy Joel in a proto-metal band sounds and looks so kitschy and so bad that it can actually be like a pug or a bulldog and end up being cute.

It’s a Crapsack World…For Now

I was going through Facebook when I saw Kanye West’s proclamation that he will be greater than Nelson Mandela ever was. Cashing in on the dead: how honorable. Just to feed his narcissistic desires, he spews out filth just as much of the world mourns for the passing of one of the world’s most influential leaders. It bewilders me that such a person, who has made his fortune ripping off other artists by “sampling” them and having the audacity to label cut-and-paste jobs as his “music”, could make such a claim. I would also have the guts to say that today’s generation is exercising its stupidity in glorifying such talentless plagiarizers.

Related to this matter is the fact that greedy businessmen have made it a point to bleed true artists dry, a fact that Robert Fripp is very much troubled by. You can read all about it in this article.

In this article, Robert Fripp points out how “21st Century Schizoid Man” was heavily sampled in Kanye West’s track entitled “Power” without his consent. Here we witness one of the most important progressive rock songs of all time turned into rubbish by some rapper who doesn’t have the skill to write his own music, and then earn millions afterwards. If you want evidence of how unfair the world is, well here’s one example folks.

It’s one result of how broken our world is because of sin. It is easy to fall into the temptation of . While the wicked prosper in this day and age, it is something that should not be envied because it’s temporary. Reading Proverbs 3 and the entire book of Habakkuk assures us of God’s promises that such injustice is temporary as we look forward into a prosperous eternity. It’s a crapsack world for now, but it will pass.

An Electric Guitar, a Tube Amp, a Hymn, and the Dream of an Electric Guitar Orchestra

The idea of having an electric guitar is nothing new. It’s been done before in the studio by the likes of Brian May and in live situations by somebody like Glenn Branca. However, that does not stop me from being fascinated by it. As a matter of fact, I still dream of establishing a purely electric guitar orchestra in the Philippines. I don’t know if that idea has already been implemented in this godforsaken country where I live but I hope to turn that idea into reality.

Anyway, as I was going through and studying the hymns that will be sung at the UCCP-MCCD on Sunday, I ended playing our benediction hymn (“The Lord Bless You and Keep You”) on the piano. The idea then came to me to create a test recording of my electric guitar plugged into a tiny tube amp,  a Bugera BC15 (a hybrid actually with a tube preamp and solid state power section). Okay, I know some snobbish gearhead somewhere in cyberspace would have their negative impressions of it but who cares anyway? As long as it can do what I need, I’m happy. Guess what the piece I used for the test recording. It’s the benediction hymn. Not much of a puzzle at all, right?

So, I plugged my guitar into the amp, mic’ed up my amp with my trusty old condenser mic, took the hymnal from the piano and into the other piano (where my recording equipment is located), and I began reading through all the parts while recording. Since it’s SATB, I recorded each part into four different tracks, mixed everything, performed some post-production processing, and ended up with this:

 

So, on face value it seems like I’m trying to channel a cheap Brian May impression. Brian May is, after all, Brian May, and nobody could match what he could do. The point here really is not imitating Brian May (although it somewhat sounds like it), but experimenting and figuring out how a tiny amp and an electric guitar would sound like as an ensemble instrument. It’s kind of like an electric rondalla ensemble, the kind of thing I’m dreaming about. For my ears, it sounds nice although opinions by others may vary. I’m happy that I could realize something like an electric guitar orchestra in a studio setting.

This got me into thinking: I suppose it really is possible for me to organize an electric guitar orchestra here in the Philippines. The thing required to turn this into reality is to get around 12 note-reading guitarists equipped with their electric guitars and tiny amps (with overdrive). This, however, is fraught with certain problems:

1. In a performance situation, having at least 12 guitar amps would be difficult to control. No matter how tiny they can be, each amp can be really loud. This leads us to problem number 2:

2. There are lead guitarists that have an inflated sense of ego. They would complain they are not loud enough, so they would turn up their volume. Eventually everybody starts competing for volume. It can be a big headache.

3. Financing such a project can be expensive. To sum it up, I cannot afford it and the future of an electric guitar orchestra being financially compensated for what it’s worth seems nil.

Possible solutions include:

1. Hooking up each amp into a mixing board. However, the entire point of an electric guitar orchestra is to simulate an acoustic one i.e. I will treat an electric guitar and an amp as a single instrument. Positioning each amplifier in different sections of the performance hall is essential in how I perceive an electric guitar orchestra should sound like. Hooking up each amp to a mixing board with the output ultimately coming from PA loudspeakers would completely destroy the ambient effect I am looking for.

2. Hiring for attitude, training for skill. I should try to employ humble and open-minded guitarists willing to learn how to read notation. I should avoid those who try to be extra special with egos bigger than Yngwie Malmsteen.

3. Getting a grant and looking for sponsors. Perhaps I should turn this into a proposal for a local arts society or foundation and see if they would finance me. Are there local foundations out there who would give a rat’s ass about a project like this? I don’t know. I could try finding if I got the time. Perhaps there might be a couple of rich people out there who have the money for such.

I wonder if this electric guitar orchestra dream of mine could become a reality here in the Philippines. Maybe somebody out there would support it.

Answering the Call

It’s was the first Saturday of the year that I had formally worked with both the choir and worship band of UCCP-Makati Church of Christ Disciples. It was tough and challenging yet at the same very fulfilling. I have seen the logistical challenges that I would face should I try to unite both choir and worship band. The task seems daunting but I hope for the best. I am really hoping that I’m being of any help to that rather small community of believers.

Just this morning was the time that I would call testing the waters. Although I had played with the worship band a couple of times, it was the first time I would be at my most active. I was directing the band while playing lead guitar. I played with the church’s regular pianist and choir conductor through a number of songs. I was trying very hard to demonstrate that there need not be a divide between a traditional piano-and-choir-group and a contemporary worship band. In my mind it should just be a single worship group that is engaged throughout the worship service. Next Saturday I will be hauling again a number of items from my home studio to the church, teach music theory and instrument technique in the afternoon, rehearse with both choir and worship band.

As things go at this time, it seems that the worship band isn’t ready yet for the rather technical aspects of playing the kind of music featured in the anthem section of the worship service. I aspire to be able to pass down whatever skills I have to the band and the choir so that every musical aspect of the service could be covered by both as a single unit. It doesn’t have to matter whether they are singing traditional hymns or covering the kind of stuff that Don Moen and Ron Kenoly would play. I am optimistic that this will happen given training and patience.

Like my studio persona, I am a teacher, equipment technician, musician, and music director rolled into one package. It’s tough work where I do not expect any remuneration of sort. What lies ahead of me are more challenges from both a personal and professional perspective. Why would I be crazy enough to put out such effort every week? It’s because I am answering the call of The Lord. I have no other justification for it. God has called me to use my skills for his purpose. I will abide by what I believe is my calling and purpose in life. So it has begun, my life as a volunteer music worker.