Are Instrumental Intros Worth It?

Imagine the situation. You’ve just bought a new CD, got home and after fighting with the fiddly folded corners of the stubborn cellophane wrapper for five minutes, you are finally ready to press play. Track one begins, fading in from silence and as the chords progress through several iterations it begins to dawn on you that this song is an instrumental introduction to the record. You can’t quite work out if it serves a purpose or whether it is just is present as filler; you just have to hope it’s getting you into the right mood for track two. As the song trundles on, you nearly lose confidence; so tempted to press skip so that the album can start in earnest. Finally track two begins, but was it worth the wait?

Instrumental intros are commonplace. You can probably think of several straight away off the top of your head, but the question is: are they being thought of fondly?

A truly great instrumental intro is one that can stand alone from the rest of the album. It is a song in its own right, with structure, obvious progression and a musical narrative. The acid test is whether or not this song would make your iPod, going against the almost instinctive reaction of unchecking the tickbox which denotes if a certain track is going to be imported into your library or not. Such a track is Dream Theater’s False Awakening Suite, the introduction to their 2013 self-titled effort. This track opens with a powerful orchestral march that slowly transforms through many different phases before John Petrucci unleashes a series of wailing unison bends. Even though False Awakening Suite was written to sound epic like a movie soundtrack, it has enough evolution throughout three distinct movements that it can be heard on its own, without the need for track two to hold its hand.

Another approach to writing successful instrumental intros is to construct the track around a musical motif that reappears elsewhere on the record. This is very common in progressive music, especially within concept records. Coheed & Cambria are an excellent example of a band that does this, as their first three albums share the same motif, which is beautifully arranged for an orchestral interpretation on Keeping The Blade – the intro to Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume I: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness. In these albums the recognisable musical theme symbolises periods when a large amount of time has elapsed within the story, but it is altered enough such that each time it is heard it does not grow repetitive. However, care does have to be taken with this approach, as shown by Porcupine Tree’s Occam’s Razor which is the very skip-able introduction to 2010’s The Incident.

Despite the success that can be achieved with a well designed instrumental introduction, some bands seem content with a thirty second build up of noise as track one. Although iconic with the nu metal community, Slipknot’s 742617000027, which sees DJ Sid Wilson having fun with a sample of Charles Manson, is left completely flat without its successor (sic). Even worse is Papa Roach’s Engage which introduces 2012’s The Connection with a dull drone that eventually evolves into a forgettable melody. Surely the album would have been better off to kick straight into the pompous march of Still Swingin’? There are countless other examples – just check your iTunes to see how many albums begin with track two!

To write the perfect instrumental intro a lot of hard work is needed – so is it really worth it? The answer is yes. Just remember that The xx managed to craft an intro that in some circles is considered to be the best song from the album. The simply titled Intro is governed by distinctive drum rhythms, as well as an oscillating growth and decay of tension which speaks to listeners emotions and prepares them for the bleak anti-pop beyond. This track manages to serve two purposes; firstly it is a fantastic song in its own right, but secondly it sets the scene like a well written prologue, making the album feel more connected and unified.

It is clear then that taking the time to produce a decent intro is most definitely worth it, as it can enhance an album by providing cohessivity and diversity. Unfortunately most bands haven’t quite mastered the art yet and until such a time when they have, instrumental intros should be handled with great care.

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A Tribute to Isaiah “Ikey” Owens

In today’s RockAtlantic I want to take a chance to remember Isaiah “Ikey” Owens, who sadly passed away last week. Owens is most well known for playing keyboards in The Mars Volta from 2001 to 2011, making him the longest server band member besides the duo of Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez who lead the band’s musical direction. Outside of The Mars Volta, Owens was a prolific session musician, providing keyboard work for the likes of Mastodon and Jack White, as well as having his own solo project under the moniker Free Moral Agents.

Since getting into The Mars Volta several years ago, I have become a big fan of Owens and thought I’d pay tribute to him by selecting five of my favourite tracks that showcase Owens’ talent.

The Mars Volta – Day of The Baphomets

During what is perhaps my favourite Mars Volta song, Owens keeps his playing calm and steady, whilst chaos circulates around him. During the intro, which gradually builds into a jazz-fusion free-for-all, he lays down a gorgeous descending piano riff that compliments Terrazas-Gonzalez’s saxophone licks perfectly. As the twelve minute song progresses, Owens introduces a sustained organ that appears in the breakdown and the reappears during one of the many bridges, as well as a dreamy keyboard sound that provides a basis for Rodriguez-Lopez’s frantic guitar solo.

Mother’s Cake – Soul Prison

Mother’s Cake are the Austrian band who were supporting Anathema when I saw them at the end of September. On their debut album, Creation’s Finest, Owens provides a sumptuous organ solo on the two part epic Soul Prison, whilst fellow keyboardist Georg Gabler is also allowed free rein on a Fender Rhodes. The track begins as a funk rock head-banger, but through multiple solo sections it transforms into a progressive jam that The Mars Volta would be proud to call their own.

Mastodon – Pendulous Skin

Pendulous Skin concludes Mastodon’s 2006 effort, Blood Mountain, and features a style that is contradictory to the rest of the record. The track is a slow-paced jam featuring acoustic guitars, a bluesy lead and subdued vocal work from Brent Hinds, which all floats on top of a layer of organ-like keyboards provided by Owens.

Jack White – Just One Drink

Owens’ playing is as flamboyant as ever on Jack White’s Just One Drink – the second single to be released from the eccentric musician’s second solo record, Lazaretto. Once again his performance is spot on; delivering the up-beat, high tempo style that the song demanded, showcasing just how varied Owens’ repertoire was. Sadly he died whilst on the Mexican-leg of Jack White’s Lazaretto tour, making this song and the rest of his performances on the album, particularly poignant.

Free Moral Agents – Everybody’s Favorite Weapon

Free Moral Agents were a collection of musicians lead by Owens as a means to provide depth to his solo work. Everbody’s Favourite Weapon is the title track off their debut record and is a mellow light-jazz piece that meanders through keyboard-led sections, accompanied by xylophones, flutes, trumpets and an array of percussion instruments, which each take turns in coming to fore. His solo work sounds vastly different from the progressive music he normally associates himself with, but his distinctive jazz influences remain prominent. Free Moral Agents feel like an extension of his work with The Mars Volta; allowing fans to understand the complete musical picture behind Owens’ impressive playing, which wasn’t possible when he was filling a supporting role behind Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez.

R.I.P. Isaiah “Ikey” Owens

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Initial Thoughts on the Upcoming Slipknot Record

Over the past several months, news of Slipknot’s upcoming album, entitled .5 The Gray Chapter, has seemingly been headlining music news sites on a weekly basis. A combination of personnel changes, stories of re-adjusting without their late bassist and the general hype that surrounds metal’s most infamous band has thrown their studio time straight into the media spotlight. Despite this media hunger, Slipknot have thus far only released three* songs from the new record (if you ignore yesterday’s ill-timed and mysterious multi-song leak originating from their record label, Roadrunner Records) which I intend to review in today’s edition of RockAtlantic.

The Negative One

Beginning with a growing intensity of noise, The Negative One bursts into a riff reminiscent of The Shape and The Heretic Anthem, accompanied by the clang of Clown’s and Chris Fehn’s custom percussion and the wail of Sid Wilson’s electronics. The Iowa-era similarities don’t stop there, as Corey Taylor unleashes a relentless barrage of snarled vocals whilst the dense wall of sound evolves to include layers of samples and turntable licks. As the first single from the album, The Negative One is a bold statement. Gone are the radio-friendly melodies and intricate guitar solos, replaced instead by the raw aggression that made Slipknot’s debut stand out above the nu metal crowd.

Overall: 8/10

The Devil In I

If this is the radio-friendly single that the label wants to release to appeal to a wider rock audience, then Slipknot fans can be assured that they have returned to pure heaviness of pastures old. The track’s main melody is menacing and addictive, whilst the verses relax into a sombre march that sees new bassist Alessandro Venturella come to the fore. Yes, Taylor’s verse vocals are clean and melodic, but his delivery is haunting and he soon rips into a roar during the mosh-pit groove of The Devil In I‘s chorus. This track plays on a similar level to the predecessor’s lead single Psychosocial; finding the balance between brutality and melody that Slipknot have been practicing ever since 1999’s Wait and Bleed.

Overall: 8/10

Custer

Slipknot have often stated how influential Korn have been to their sound and Custer pays homage to them by opening with a vocal exchange that imitates the one heard on Korn’s Clown. Just like The Negative One, Custer sounds as if it was lifted off Iowa, with turntable riffing, percussion overload and sense of immediate danger. However Custer doesn’t feel as intense as the tracks from the aforementioned album for two reasons. The primary cause for this is that the music seems a little unfocused, as if it were designed to imitate, rather than emulate. Secondly Taylor’s lyrics aren’t as bleak as the themes of rejection and anger than permeate Iowa, instead they focus on society and politics: a theme that soon gets old.

Overall: 6/10

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*As I am about to publish this post the album’s intro track XIX has just been uploaded for streaming on Slipknot’s website.

 

The Role of the Producer Part 5 – Wilson & Raskulinecz

This is the last segment of a five part series investigating the role of the producer in modern rock music. So far I have mainly focused on negative examples to highlight just how hard the field of producing can be, but today I want to take a look at two producers who I hold in high regard and that are nothing short of a success stories.

Steven Wilson

Regular readers will have realised that I am a big fan of Steven Wilson. However my adoration for him stretches further than just his music, because as well as performing in numerous bands and side projects, he has also had many credits in producing and mixing.

Wilson’s first production credit was for a band named Psychomuzak, which was then followed by stints with more recognisable names: Fish and Marillion. However, it would be his next production role that would elevate Wilson to the status for which he is regarded today. As a fan of Porcupine Tree’s Pink Floyd-esque work, Opeth frontman Mikael Akerfeldt chose to enlist the help of Wilson to produce their fifth effort Blackwater Park. Today this album is considered a turning point in the band’s catalogue and is often cited as their best work, for Wilson managed to capture the progressive influences of their earlier work that had been struggling to make themselves heard, whilst still maintaining their death metal origins. This album also laid the foundations for one of the most consistently creative partnerships in progressive music, which reached its music zenith in 2011/12 with the ambitious triptych of Grace For Drowning, Heritage and Storm Corrosion.

More recently Wilson has turned his hand to mixing, which has included focusing a lot on remixing classic progressive rock records from the likes of King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Yes, ELP and Hawkwind. One of Wilson’s most successful album mixes was Anathema’s 2010 ‘come-back’ record We’re Here Because We’re Here, which, just like Blackwater Park, let their true progressive nature become unleashed.

Nick Raskulinecz

Nick Raskulinecz made his production debut on Foo Fighters’ 2002 album One by One after impressing Grohl with his engineering duties on their track A320 which was recorded for the 1998 Godzilla film. He continued working with Grohl on subsequent releases, playing a role in growing the band to the international level in which they operate today.

On the basis of this work, Raskulinecz soon received many offers from major-label bands including Trivium, Marilyn Manson, Stone Sour, Mastodon and Evanescence. He eventually found himself producing Rush’s Snakes & Arrows (2007) and their latest masterpiece Clockwork Angels (2012), which together have helped the Canadian band return to the pinnacle of the progressive rock genre. Raskulinecz was also responsible for producing Alice In Chains’ comeback records Black Gives Way to Blue and The Devil Put the Dinosaurs Here, which have been once again confirmed AIC as masters of the grunge genre. In 2010 Raskulinecz took over Deftones’ production duties to work on Diamond Eyes, replacing Bob Ezrin and Shaun Lopez who oversaw Saturday Night Wrist‘s disjointed recording sessions. He would completely rejuvenate the band who had begun to show signs of weakening, making Diamond Eyes, and its follow up Koi No Yokan, two of the most successful metal albums of the new decade.

The aim of this blog series has been to show that the choice of producer can have a much bigger role in a record’s sound than most people think. I hope I have shown what makes a good producer and that when your favourite band’s new album is announced, you’ll stop and think what their choice of recording personnel might mean for the road ahead.

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