Book Of Small Hours (2015)

This album, long referred to in my sporadic online posts on the topic as “The Prog Project”, was a long-standing ambition of mine. Since my teens, my musical tastes have leaned toward what is usually bracketed by the term “progressive rock”, and I imagine that elements of this kind of music have sneaked into my output over the years. However, perhaps surprisingly, I have never embarked upon a recording project which centres on this genre (if it can be called one without annoying certain artists frequently corralled within it), and for some time I have had the urge to remedy this…

By the early months of 2014, the vague concept of “I want to record a ‘prog’ album” was beginning to develop into an almost-plan of action. I “knew” a few things: I only wanted drums on some of the tracks; I felt the urge to experiment with plenty of software instruments (synths, etc.) and effects; there would be some “nods” (overt and not-so) to progressive-rock artists who have meant a lot to me over the years; and the Non-Negotiable… there was to be an “epic” song-suite of 22-25 minutes in length (i.e. what would’ve been a whole side of a vinyl LP in Ye Olde Days).

The first composition/recording for what became “Book Of Small Hours” (which, incidentally, was going to be the title of the album even before I began it), came about unexpectedly, in April 2014. I was visiting my parents for a few days, and one day during a car-journey I was experimenting with my iPhone, on which I had installed a fair number of music-production apps. I fed Super Manetron (a Mellotron “emulator”, on its “flutes” setting) through Vio (a kind of intelligent pitch-shifter/vocoder FX processor, which generates chords from single notes), and the results were sufficiently interesting to try on my iPad when we returned to the house. I replicated the setup (getting some unexpectedly different tones) on the iPad, and starting from the recorded Manetron/Vio part and a “drone” from two more apps, I began to overdub parts played with assorted iPad instrument apps (synths, organ, “Mellotron” and so on). Within a couple of hours, I had recorded most of “Processional”, the opening section of the “Book Of Small Hours” suite (or to give its working title, “The Epic”), entirely on the iPad with no hardware MIDI controller: just the touchscreen interface.

I undertook the lion’s-share of recording for this project on the iPad, wherever I happened to be at the time, including all the acoustic guitars and most of the electrics and bass, and much of the synthesisers, as well as vocals and occasional other acoustic instrumentation. Drums and additional synths, as well as assembly of the segued songs and mixing, were undertaken on the Mac in our home studio, where I transferred the iPad recordings.

In composition terms, some of the song material preceded the start of the project. “Leave It All Behind” (which forms a major part of the “Book” song-suite), “Bridge Of Crows” and “Castle” were all written during the FAWM (February Album Writing Month) songwriting challenge in February 2014, and subsequently re-recorded for this project. Furthermore, “Golden Age” (in the suite) and “Hold You Back” were composed during a “diversion” in November: another “intensive” songwriting/recording challenge, “NaSoAlMo” (National Solo Album Month), which birthed the first album from my “side-project band”, The Pattern Store.

The remaining compositions emerged during the project. I wrote “Sands” (ultimately chosen to open the album) in August, during a session in which I was recording some acoustic-guitar versions of old songs for posterity, and a new song emerged to keep them company. Musically, parts of the song were inspired by my vague memory of the theme-tune to a particular BBC “Jackanory” story, which I recently learned was transmitted in 1980. I can only hope that 34 years had mutated it in my mind beyond all recognition!

“The Getaway” (the instrumental section in the middle of the suite) owes much of its content, if not its existence, to the ARP2600V software synthesiser with which I recorded it. I often feel vaguely guilty when making use of presets, and I trust I was able to create something reasonably original with these!

I will happily admit that “Oceandrop”, composed and recorded in late September, bears clear signs of influence from the album “Heartleap” by Vashti Bunyan, which would end up my favourite release of 2014. At the time, it had not yet been released (it emerged in early October), but previews of a couple of tracks were aired (legitimately) on the Internet during September, including “Holy Smoke”, the atmosphere of which I can detect in “Oceandrop”. (Note: there is no synth on this track at all. Aside from the glockenspiel and voices, all the sounds are electric guitar-originated, including the shimmering atmospherics (a guitar heavily-processed through the reverb/delay/pitch-shifter app Crystalline).)

Although I used a keyboard for a couple of synth parts on this album (mostly during “The Getaway”, when I needed to use the modulation-wheel for the filter control), most synths were triggered either from MIDI guitar or the touchscreen interface of an iPad synth app. Much of the MIDI guitar parts done on the Mac were down to my venerable Roland GI-10 interface, but in November I acquired a Sonuus i2M guitar audio interface/MIDI converter, which came in very handy in the latter stages of the project.

I also gained a number of instruments during the near-year of work on this project. Most were software instruments (mostly synthesisers, including iMini, iSEM, iVCS3 and EThereminMKII on the iPad, and ARP2600V on the Mac); however, I did acquire an electric lap-steel guitar very late in the sessions, which just made it onto the title track (in the “Leave It All Behind” sections).

More to follow…

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