the no holds barred guide to the new album...

ALTERATIONS

Substantive Recordings STAVE CD2

Release date: 02/07/2012

 

Alterations began life as a kneejerk reaction. I'd been pondering how to follow up Ascendant - very much a late-night atmospheric mood piece - and felt determined not to be pigeonholed as a slow angsty indie neo-classicist, because that was only one aspect of the work I wanted to create. There were a handful of mostly uptempo songs I wanted to record, but randomly writing another bunch and slinging the whole lot together in a vaguely acceptable order didn't seem like that interesting a prospect (I like albums with a sense of purpose, after all). Not only that, but I did want there to be SOME connection with the previous album lest it appear like a musical invasion of the body-snatchers type affair.

Somewhere in my ponderings, the idea of creating classically-leaning counterpart songs derived from themes and riffs in those I'd already written took a foothold and refused to shift. It seemed apt enough, for my work as a dance class pianist frequently involves messing around with themes spontaneously through improvisation. This would just be a little more considered, and although I wasn't aiming for 'serious' composer territory it was certainly within my capabilities. I figured the musical ambitiousness of it might also prick a few curious ears and minds in the indie music world.

So here is the track by track guide to the finished result, Alterations, with five almost-pop songs transformed into five almost-classical ones. (The 'almost' is to keep me safe from the cold zombie hands of genre purists...) It is not intended to be a definitive guide to the 'meaning' of every song, though I've certainly indicated my general thoughts and motivations, and quoted lyrics as necessary. Interpretations are always yours to make, dear listener.

The album is mirrored at the centre so that track 6 is derived from track 5, 7 from 4, 8 from 3, 9 from 2, and 10 from 1. Unlike Ascendant, it is not exclusively designed to be listened to from start to finish, even though the running order works well enough. It could just as easily be considered a set of double A-side singles - in ye olde vinyl terms - and listened to accordingly; the connections might make themselves a little more obvious that way.

And for anyone wondering why it's called Alterations and not Transformations, it's simply that I'm still on the one word album titles beginning with A following Anachronisms and Ascendant. At my current rate of progress, I might possibly reach the 'T's around the end of the next century.

The entire album can be listened to on SOUNDCLOUD

(link opens in new window)



THE DEATH OF COPYRIGHT

Lead Vocals: Mark Northfield/Ellen Jakubiel/Antony Connor
Piano: Mark Northfield
Programming/Guitars/Whistling: Andrew Holdsworth
Strings: Charlie Brown/Nick Barr/Tony Woollard

Multi-Faceted Philosophical Disco


(The first one is more of an essay than a simple track analysis, and contains a whole swathe of pertinent, but nonetheless tangential, rambling. Apologies for that. For the other nine I'll stick to the point, I promise!)

As the first line of the song suggests, this deliberately plagiaristic song started life in response to hearing a pop creation so clinically and cynically perfect in every respect, it was both wonderfully moving and yet also deeply depressing. And before you ask, no, I'm not going to say what it was. We all need our occasional little secrets and that's jolly well going to be one of mine.

In music, sometimes it can be the simplest ideas which dig deepest - as Oscar Wilde knew all too well - and this doesn't just have to be in pop. I remember being moved to tears the first few times I heard 'Spiegel Im Spiegel' by Arvo Part (violin and piano in its original setting) because it was so utterly beautiful in its construction, and the performance I listened to supremely restrained (Tasmin Little/Martin Roscoe). I'd never realised just how emotional an F major scale could be, and that's all the piece is in terms of notes.

Of course, there's more to 'popular' music than mere simplicity, but when a beautiful idea does hit the spot it can be terrifyingly effective. Woe betide you if you happen to have fallen head over heels in love around the same time (double whammy!), whilst also coming to a sense that humanity is pretty much holding a gun to its own head (see THE UP SHIT CREEK BLUES for more on that topic). In those circumstances, the pop hook becomes more like a religious experience, or at the very least, the most potent sugar rush. Another hit is always required.

Apart from the very prominent Autotune (the plug-in darling of rock and pop alike) TDOC is quite a 70s affair, at least in the verses. The disco hi-hat, the funky guitar line (hey, 'Superstition' has been ripped off so many times already, once more ain't gonna hurt), the offbeat string quavers vaguely reminiscent of an arts programme theme tune... But then the chorus turns up, and the party stops abruptly. The pop hook hit and cupid's arrow have both gone straight to the heart, and you're left lying on your back gazing up at the sky, wondering what's real:

'The air fairly hums with dreams
But I don't sing their melodies
I sing what I cannot hear
'Twas all about the part you played
It's all about the way the chorus fades...'

(And you realise that none of it is real unless you want it to be. Do you want it to be?)

The 'rock' verse is then a slightly sarcastic response to the more heartfelt 'pop' verse, because frankly the over-inflated ego of rock (in whatever form) deserves it. Rock is often as guilty as pop of being led by the whims of fashion and press-release hype, and tends to assume superiority merely by dint of being more muscular, messier around the edges and more 'real'. And by 'real' we usually mean 'the music can be played live'.

A band performing a song live can make for a euphoric communal experience for all present, and few would deny the power of the irreproducible moment. But then clubbing can also create euphoric irreproducible moments. Is clubbing less 'real'? Is listening to music through headphones less 'real', when the environment around you can actively alter your perception of what you are listening to?

Not everything that is good can be done in real time without using pre-programmed or pre-recorded elements, and there can be just as much artistry and hard work in studio creations. I enjoy performing live, but logistics and cost mean it will never have the richness of the recorded version in terms of, say, string players or range of vocalists.

But I digress...

Having said everything I wanted to say in those two verses and subsequent chorus, I then fell back on the old pop trick of translating sections (admit it: 'Sunday Girl' and 'Fade To Grey' wouldn't be half as good without the French bits) with the pop verse slipping into a sexy French female rendition courtesy of Ellen Jakubiel, and the rock verse into a slightly aggressive Germanic take courtesy of Antony Connor (who sang precisely one note on Ascendant, but oh what a note it was). Nothing like a few stereotypes to get you through the day.

As if that weren't enough, there is also that high peak of cheese with militaristic overtones: the whistling chorus. As befits the deliberate awkwardness of the whole shaboodle, this middle chorus is the only one in the song with a beat behind it. Shame I can't bloody well whistle.

Following the final multi-vocal ballad version of the chorus, it all concludes with a direct quote from the piece the piano part in the first chorus imitates, namely J.S. Bach's well-known prelude No 1 in C from the first book of his Well-Tempered Clavier. For those unfamiliar, this 18th century body of work is widely regarded as one of the most influential in music history, properly ushering in the tonal era of major/minor equal temperament that has underpinned most western music ever since. The fact that my simple chorus melody can be slipped over the section of it I quote was a pleasing bonus. It really wasn't planned that way.

And once that final F in the piano has sounded, what should you make of this 5mins and 16 seconds of hotch-potch musical playfulness? Harmless multi-lingual pop romp? Pretentious twaddle? Stroke of cracked genius? All three? Sure. Why shouldn't pop music be ambitious? I'd rather be criticised for that than for being predictable. If at the same time I can make you nod to the beat and grin a little, then that's no bad thing in itself.

Speaking of grinning, In making this the title track of the first EP from the album, I created my first ever animation video for it. It took several increasingly late nights to finish and I learnt a fair few important lessons along the way (eg don't film it on the floor or your body will start to ache in lots of very unpredictable and annoying ways come the 25th hour), but I was very proud of what I achieved with my dancing letter tiles and the odd plastic postman.

You can find it on the 'sound &vision' page of this website, but it's also on YouTube.

And now some further thoughts about copyright and the general state of things...

Recorded music is - like a lot of what we assume to be indispensable - a luxury, even if music itself is an essential part of human communication and expression. Some would argue that much modern music is ephemeral fluff and dumbing down our artistic sensibilities decade by decade. I disagree with that, although I don't hear many mainstream pop/rock songs that make me go WOW! these days. Maybe it's an age thing.

The main trouble it seems is that with music now so readily available online for little or no cost via sites like YouTube or Spotify (never mind actual file-sharing) it's increasingly hard for new artists to measure up to the wealth of previously recorded music out there, let alone persuade anyone to part with money for their creative work. We are stumbling around in a world of musical echoes and drowning in choice; no wonder music is devalued and the concept of copyright dying a death except for things like film/TV licensing (and it would be rash to assume nothing will ever change there).

Even a dedicated music fan like me suffers from a certain fatigue at the enormity of music past and present sitting there begging to be heard. Books like '1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die' make me laugh, because I immediately think: What? ONLY 1001? We should be so lucky! This feeling is an undercurrent running through the whole of this plagiaristic song: what is there for us musicians to do and say that hasn't been done before?

Indeed, it's the best and worst of times for the budding indie musician. I can do so much to promote myself now that was unthinkable in the late 90s, and yet because the perceived value of music has shifted so radically even recouping recording costs from sales is quite a challenge. Because I believe wholeheartedly in the value of what I do, I can and will support (within reason) my creative output through my day-to-day work as a musician, but I'm aware of how lucky I am in that regard with a location close to London and improvisational skills that have found a very worthwhile and rewarding niche in the world of dance/theatre training.

What might be useful now is for as many people as possible to promote a code of ethics for listeners, such that they are not threatened into paying for things (fat lot of good that did...), but encouraged at every opportunity to give a suitably small proportion of their available spare cash when something they encounter inspires them enough. Music as charity, if you like.

Just as importantly, people should be strongly encouraged to spend more time on music they do discover and love, rather than always skimming the surface of online content like addicts for anything new. It's only by spending time with art that we really get to grips with it, and the surfeit of choice available actively drives us away from that engagement. When you don't engage, there can be little to no meaning. Why would you feel the need to contribute financially to something which has little to no meaning for you?

This approach might require many of us to grow up a bit and start taking more personal responsibility for our actions, but then that applies to more than just music. I certainly think an appeal to people's desire to do the right thing by others is more likely to yield results than treating them like naughty children who can't keep their hands out of the sweetie jar.

I'll leave the final word to Jaron Lanier who, musing upon the only currently reliable source of online income in his excellent and thoughtful book 'You Are Not A Gadget', writes:

'If you really want to know what's going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty. If content is worthless then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless.'

A warning worth heeding.




SOME SONGS...

Lead Vocals: Christopher Killerby
Backing Vocals: Bryony Lang, Nero
Keyboards and Canine Percussion: Mark Northfield
Bass Guitar: Andrew Holdsworth
Strings: Charlie Brown/Tony Woollard

A Gently Baffling Waltz About Music With Some Familiar Aspects 

This song naturally flows on from the previous one, even though it was actually written first. For starters, the hanging G7 at the end of The Death Of Copyright is immediately resolved by the C chord at the start. But the main link is the subject matter: music, and its power to shape our lives.

I'm a great admirer of people like Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields etc), Tom Waits and Kate Bush, artists who happily plough their own sonic furrows and care not one jot for fashion. They do exactly as they please, and are all the more interesting for it. Another feature of these particular iconoclasts is that they're more than willing to walk the line between comedy and seriousness when the mood suits them. I think a willingness to revel in ambiguity and layers of meaning is essentially a theatrical trait. The fact that they're all keyboard players may have something to do with this artistic leaning.

This strangely arranged little waltz attempts to walk the ambiguous path, although the small spoonful of humour is gentle rather than dark (eg 'Some seem to have lust tattooed on their behinds/Some songs are just too old, too young, or darling too tired'). In keeping with the theatrical angle, Christopher Killerby, previously heard on Ascendant's Resistance, delivers a suitably hushed opening to each verse before building to his full and fruity vibrato.

Musically speaking, I could have played the song straight as a gentle piano lullaby, but I felt the almost-pop half of the album deserved something a little weirder than that. Thus we have some 80s gothic bass guitar hypnotically syncopating in fifths, whilst some harpsichord arpeggios flow sweetly above (the harpsichord following neatly on from the Bach prelude quote at the end of the previous song). The piano part I used to build everything else around is almost entirely missing; once everything else was in place it seemed superfluous to requirements.

Much of the 'humour' is not in the lyrics at all, but comes from the underlying canine theme, partially inspired by the old picture of the HMV dog by the gramophone (the alternative title to this track was 'His Master's Voice'). Bryony Lang's chromatically awkward howls in the coda were always part of the plan (and great fun was had by all that afternoon) but the doggy percussion came about because I simply wasn't content with the drum loops we originally tried. Sometimes you just have to let circumstances take you for a walk in the park...

These sonic pawprints are nicely counterpointed by occasional contributions from Nero - that blackest of cats - in his debut recording. Not to be confused with the dubstep-popsters of the same name, Nero appears on both the header of my website and the artwork for Ascendant. He is remarkably unconcerned by his fame thus far, and has refused to sign autographs.




YOU DON'T NEED ME TO TELL YOU THAT

Lead vocals: Ellen Jakubiel & Matt Crutchlow
Backing vocals and pianos: Mark Northfield
Acoustic guitar: Gareth Forster
Other guitars and programming: Andrew Holdsworth

Antagonistic MOR Love Duet With A Slight Twinge Of Country

Here it all takes a turn for the conventional. Seemingly. On the Soundcloud page for this I suggest it's a song 'painted a slight shade of Paul McCartney', and musically that's certainly true of the verses. The steady left hand piano octaves and initial chord progression is pure Macca  (with a little hint of Wilco).

However, there's also a hefty dollop of The Beautiful South throughout. For all their tendencies toward MOR blandness, there was a band who perfected the art of the pop duet (You Keep It All In, A Little Time, Bell Bottomed Tear and Perfect 10 being good examples) with a heavy line in sarcasm and wit nicely at odds with the unassuming radio-friendliness of the music. Amazing what you can get away with if the music is charming enough, although even they had to change the words of Don't Marry Her for radio airplay. That comparison here is strengthened by Ellen's remarkably sweet butter-wouldn't-melt tone (also heard to wondrously melancholic effect on Ascendant's Decidedly Dumb) complemented by Matt's indie-hero wistfulness (another splendid Ascendant contribution on Waiting For Green).

Still, me being me, I didn't just want to create a standard narrative of two lovers having an argument. (How very commercial!) No, I thought it would be more interesting to have a song with the characters delving beneath the usual easy cliches of love-angst into fuzzier territory, where things almost make sense but nothing at all is really that clear cut, where language begins to fall apart. The lyrics therefore tend to avoid anything too mundane eg 'Isn't bad, isn't everything/The difference between us: you see half empty, I only care what it tastes like' or 'Isn't bad, isn't anything/Chasing youth's adrenaline to find the fear of God still victorious'. The recurring mentions of tide and life give the sense of forces far larger that neither are not in control of.

As for the title... Well, there are many songs out there which take some well-used everyday phrase and apply it to a song setting, with the familiarity of the words piquing curiosity and ensuring some level of memorability. I wasn't aware that this particular phrase had had a musical outing, so off I jolly well rode with it. The Pet Shop Boys are so good at this (eg What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Do I Have To?, Bet She's Not Your Girlfriend, You Know Where You Went Wrong) that I figured they may as well get a namecheck as reward, even if I had to reverse their usual writing credit of Tennant-Lowe in order to squeeze it in. Their sadly overlooked Miserabilism from the B-side collection Alternative is also referred to.

Musically it is all very radio-friendly acoustic stuff, but it does also veer strangely toward country in some respects. This wasn't the intention when it was written, but the ultra-simple bass guitar line in the final set of choruses led it that way, and so the slide guitar in the instrumental then seemed a logical extension. All that said, it's not exactly Dolly Parton.

Ultimately this is a song about the confusion of love vs physicality: where the couple concerned can't agree on what it is, whether it's what they are actually feeling, nor what to do about it, even while their bodies yearn for one another. In the chorus they're singing the same thing and yet convinced the other one doesn't understand them. That confusion is something I think we all come up against at one point or another in our lives. I'm certainly no stranger to it.




NOTHING IMPOSSIBLE


Lead vocals: Phil Sykes
Backing vocals, piano and handclaps: Mark Northfield
Guitars, programming and even more handclaps: Andrew Holdsworth

Teary-Eyed But Defiant Retro Pop-Rock Anthem


Sometimes the best way to deal with darkness is by using the apparent opposite as a vehicle to acknowledge it, and there are few darker subjects than suicide. I don't really want to go into the details, save to say that I lost a very good friend, and two young kids lost their dad. I've spent many hours in the years since wondering if there was something I could have done differently, and for a long time I was reluctant to deal with it in a song, because it seemed too raw and too difficult to sum up.

However, I'd written a desperately angry song about someone else, entitled 'Just Where Do You Think You're Going' (another of those PSB-esque everyday phrases...) which I'd demoed along with others for Alterations but then decided was probably not a good idea, despite it being one of the catchier tunes in the running. For a while I was up against something of a brick wall, and then it was suddenly clear that the song's anger and desperation could have a much more appropriate focus, and the energy in it become a release for a great deal of pent-up emotion.

I pretty much wrote the words out as they are now in the space of half an hour, changing aspects of the melody and structure en route. In the first two verses, a few of the original lines survived intact ('travelling so very fast to nowhere in particular'), and a fair few others were re-fashioned with small but meaningful changes. The chorus and middle 8 are entirely different.

Musically this is a jangly retro guitar pop number making a big nod to two great bands with charismatic lead vocalists: REM and Pulp. It's sung with gruff northern beauty by a guy called Phil Sykes, an old school friend of my recording engineer and friend Andrew Holdsworth. Phil gives the song a gravity I would struggle to achieve, and it helps that his voice isn't a million miles way from Michael Stipe's!

Being the lead track of an EP (like The Death Of Copyright), I decided to create a stop-motion animation video to promote this. The cute and colourful story of the little pink fish is seemingly quite innocuous, but it has a serious subtext. You can see it HERE on YouTube or on the 'sound & vision' page of this website.

The title is the real kicker, in my opinion, even though it's a bit of a cliche. 'Nothing impossible / Nothing impossible in this life'. Writing the lyrics in a rush of emotion, I don't quite know where it came from: it just appeared and instinct told me it was entirely appropriate before I'd had time to think it through properly. On the surface it's a positive affirmation of aiming for one's goals and dealing with any obstacle, but the context here tells us that the reverse is also true: terrible things can, and do, happen. As such, it's a statement of both defiance and resignation.

This double meaning seems to parallel the strange duality of depression, the way that someone with seemingly everything going for them can nonetheless fall into a pit of despair, completely invisibly to others in many cases. And of course the one thing that is totally impossible is getting them back once they've taken that fatal step, which only adds further poignancy to the words.

The only other lyrical comment to make is that the line before the penultimate chorus was originally 'Oh what a fucking waste', but I realised that using 'fucking' in such a radio-friendly song was just shooting myself in the foot. I struggled to find an alternative which carried the same weight, and then my good friend Rosaleen Donnan suggested the word you actually hear 'Oh what a perfect waste'. I give her entire credit for that piece of exquisite juxtaposition. It says so much.




HEADLONGING

Lower lead vocal, all keyboards: Mark Northfield
Upper lead vocal: Jon Payne
Strings: Charlie Brown/Nick Barr/Tony Woollard
Loops: Andrew Holdsworth

Classical Minimalism Goes Wide-Screen Dance-Pop

The last of the almost-pop songs, and a very old one at that. The original version of this track was originally recorded back in the late 90s using a Korg X3 synth workstation. It was hissy and rough around the edges, but there was something about the recording which always moved me, and in the back of my head I was committed to redo it properly when I had the means and the inclination.

As it happens, the life-out-of-control sentiment of the song has only intensified in the years since. This piece was written some years before I owned a mobile phone or a computer, before I'd even used the internet, and certainly before I'd moved to London, that sprawling metropolis of cultural collisions and endless movement. The whole pace of life and communication seems to have sped up to an incredible degree since. Exciting some days, but on others it makes one feel thinly stretched over too many experiences. Our Brave New World indeed.

The robotic rapid-fire word association was partly inspired by Underworld's Karl Hyde notebook derived lyrical randomness (DubNoBassWithMyHeadMan is a bloody great album, might I say, with Dirty Epic deserving particular mention...) and it is not altered much from the first incarnation, except for a few choice lines and the apt deployment of a vocoder. Needless to say it's impossible for one person to sing it live in full without drawing breath, and so it was recorded two bars at a time in alternate takes.

Above that floats the long drawn-out 'I want something to hold on to' line, delivered with glacial precision by Jon Payne (the lead vocalist from THE FORECASTER; he also features on Ascendant). His take is eery and intense, particularly in the final section here. Much more so than my version on the original demo, for sure.

Driving all this along is the frantic and relentless piano line (a Philip Glass-esque device), duelling constantly with the momentum of the vocoder vocal. Meanwhile, the stabbing strings lend a certain action-packed cinematic flair to proceedings. The electronic elements of bass/rhythm and FX combine beautifully with these acoustic parts to create an action-packed rush of considerable intensity, albeit one that's hard to describe accurately. Yet another Northfield track that doesn't really sit happily in any one genre box. Hurrah.

Fulfilling one other nerdy childhood fantasy, I took the time to make a proper old-skool 12" extended version (the Stretched Out mix) which nearly doubles the length of the track and is a tiny bit punchier in some respects. This can be found on The Death Of Copyright EP alongside the title track and its counterpart, and also a bleak cover of ABBA's already pretty bleak The Day Before You Came. Bleakness squared, if you will.




THE UP SHIT CREEK BLUES


Lead vocal: Alexandra Howlett
All keyboards: Mark Northfield
Programming: Andrew Holdsworth
Strings: Charlie Brown/Nick Barr/Tony Woollard

Apocalyptic 21st Century Cabaret

And into the dark heart of the album we plunge...

As I explained earlier, this is where the 'almost-classical' half begins, although I deliberately made this something of a transition track from the 'almost-pop' half. It is a nod to the blues in both it's gloomy lyrical suit and in the construction of the verses, but it also tips its stylistic hat quite significantly to Portishead and Radiohead, neither of whom are afraid of embracing the dark side with gusto. (I dare say it pretty much defines them.)

Musically, it's built around the individual notes of the vocoder line from the counterpart track, HEADLONGING, and whilst that track is in F sharp minor and major, this is in Bb minor with a hint of Db major in the chorus. The notes are: Db/D/Eb/D/Db/C/Cb/C. The most obvious place to hear this is in top line of the rhodes part at the beginning before the messed up drums kick in. The same applies in the chorus, which is derived from the second half of Headlonging's minor 'verse' (for want of a better term), this time: Db/Eb/F/G/A/G/F/Eb/D. Simple enough to understand if you're a musician; gobbledygook to everyone else no doubt.

Lyrically... Well, it's linked to Headlonging in that they are both songs about life spinning out of control. But whereas the former is an instinctive and personal response, TUSCB casts its view rather more widely on the 21st century.

The title is a clue, obviously. Whilst I accept that on the whole human beings are resourceful, adaptable and generally able to make the best of a bad situation, we really have painted ourselves into a corner lately, haven't we? There's the ongoing financial shit (mind-boggling and unpayable private debts offloaded on to ordinary people while the super-rich and associated global corporations make full use of tax havens and buy both the media and mainstream political class), short to medium term shit (resource depletion: oil in particular, that most taken for granted of substances and war-provoker supreme) and medium to long term shit (climate change, likely to lead to crop failure and water shortages well before the significant sea level rise everyone automatically first consders).

The excellent Alexandra Howlett (also featured on Ascendant's Luco) provides her distinctive vocal qualities here. I instructed her to sing/snarl it as if she were a female American antichrist type character gleefully commenting on humanity's predicament, rather than someone down on their luck as might be more typical for a blues track. It was certainly out of her usual jazz singer comfort zone, but she rose to the occasion with style. One comment on Soundcloud was 'magnificently sinister', which seems to sum it up as best as any description I could come up with. In headphones her 'Sing, suckers!' is positively frightening.

The arrangement is simply piano, rhodes, string quartet and messed up beats from Mr Holdsworth. I decided to leave bass out of it entirely (how very Prince...) as it moves us a big step away from the almost-pop half and gives the impression that the distorted dustbin lid percussion has gatecrashed one last cabaret at the end of the world.

It's all a little despairing, admittedly, but in the same way that comedy can provide catharsis regarding dreadful subjects, I think music can do the same. It's not meant to inspire apathy, but rather galvanise the listener into action. The old saying about 'evil triumphing when the good do nothing' has never been more true.

Small steps, people, small steps. Never give up.




REMINDERS, REMIND


Lead vocal and piano: Mark Northfield
Strings: Gillon Cameron/Nick Barr/Tony Woollard

Radio 4 Meets Radio 3 In Accidental Ghost Monologue


This is where Alterations gets properly classical, thus confusing anyone who has stumbled into it courtesy of a cute rock song video featuring a little pink fish. (Hey, that was the whole idea...) The track is built around the piano riff from NOTHING IMPOSSIBLE; it also shares a lyrical connection with that song, more of which in a moment. (Spoiler alert: don't read paragraph three if you don't want to know!)

For all you muso-types out there, I transposed NI up a semitone to D major and used the individual notes from the piano riff's top line (with one exception) to weave into the chords of this piece. I also used a similarly regular piano rhythm throughout as another loose link. Now the original riff is fairly simple and restrictive by itself, coming from a fairly straightforward pop/rock song, but that was an interesting challenge to me. The trick was to develop the arrangement verse by verse without the riff intruding; it has to switch octaves regularly in order to let the piano part achieve it's constant sense of movement.

The lyrical connection with NI is, again, death, only this time the story is a monologue told from the point of view of someone killed in a suicide bombing. (S)he is sitting on a park bench somewhere in the UK, now a ghost, observing the ordinary world as we understand it. Despite this rather gothic setting, the actual monologue is quite restrained, with flashes of offbeat humour in places (eg 'No-one sees me but that child, blowing bubbles by the dozen/And cats, obviously, if they could be bothered'). There is beauty, sadness, love and longing, and the barest slivers of identifying details. At one point we slip into a neighbouring conversation entirely.

The inspiration for this device came from Ali Smith's stunning novel 'Hotel World', previously quoted directly on Ascendant's 'Weight' (the line in question there being 'I am hanging, falling, breaking, between this world and the next', with 'this' changed to 'one' to make the soprano line smoother). The book hinges on the death of a girl called Sara and how this affects various characters, not all of whom know her. Each one has a chapter of their own, but the first chapter belongs to the ghost of the girl. Needless to say, plenty of other authors have run with similar ideas before, but Smith does it with such emotive language and clever use of punctuation, it fair rips the heart out of the reader.

Musically, the track was greatly inspired by the modern English composer Gavin Bryars, in particular his A Man In A Room, Gambling series. These were a series of ten 5 minute pieces, each one containing a narration by the late Juan Munoz on how to cheat at cards. The intention (according to the sleeve notes) was to make them like a late-night radio feature to be played before the shipping forecast or similar, with the music deliberately distracting attention from the dialogue much as the gambler seeks to hide his subterfuge with dexterity. I love these pieces - along with many other works by Bryars - for their poise and subtlety, and the wonderful shifting cloudscape quality of his modulations. The best version of AMIAR,G is the 1997 one containing 5 of the 10 pieces; the full 10 with the Balanescu Quartet are fairly good but the arrangements on that CD are not as vibrant as on the revised 1997 version, and the recording is also less warm.

One last point to make: I have been asked why there is a comma in the title. Anyone who knows me knows I'm quite a stickler for punctuation, so you can guarantee it isn't an error. Let's just say that it's not the reminders doing the reminding; 'remind' is an instruction to the listener.




PARADISE BY NUMBERS


Lead vocal: Rob Hodkinson
Backing vocals: Mark Northfield, Christopher Killerby, Matthew Marks, Bryony Lang, Alexandra Howlett
Piano and percussion: Mark Northfield
Strings: Gillon Cameron/Nick Barr/Tony Woollard

Passionate Celebration Of The Human Condition With A Fairly Epic Coda

Paradise By Numbers was the last song to be written for the album. In fact, I'd barely finished the main body of it before recording the demos, and the coda was most definitely unfinished at that point. This was not for want of trying: it just proved quite reluctant to fall into shape. Perhaps as a consequence of the sweat and toil that went into it, I'm particularly proud of this one!

Similarly, finding a suitable vocalist proved quite a task; I tried it out with a number of vocalists before getting the right fit, unlike most of the other songs on this album (or Ascendant, for that matter). In the end, Rob Hodkinson, who has not sung on any of my tracks before, did the recording session having never before rehearsed it with me present. I was stunned by the vigour and quality of his performance.

The counterpart track is YOU DON'T NEED ME TO TELL YOU THAT, and my start point here was to take the notes of the chorus tune from that song and play them in reverse order. Thus, the verse here in PBN consists mainly of variations of the final chorus line from YDNMTTYT (and the flowing piano part was written to mimic this) while the chorus of PBN uses the first three chorus lines from YDNMTTYT in reverse order, with one of these repeated. Meanwhile, the 'who is the stranger here' line was derived from the downward melody of the piano introduction (A, G, F, Eb, D, C).

As if that weren't enough, the extended coda then has string parts quoting melodies from YDNMTTYT in their more recognisable forward direction, as well as the verse melody from PBN at a much slower speed. These sit alongside the repeated first lines of the PBN chorus (using the third line of the YDNMTTYT chorus in reverse, as explained above) which become a canon of sorts, each part overlapping with those either side.

Phew. Now you can probably understand why this one took me a while to get right... :)

And what is the song about? Well, it's about humanity and our evolution, and our desire to see ourselves as more than animals (religion typifies this, but not solely), when we are very clearly animals with primitive forces driving our behaviour. It just so happens that we have developed the use of advanced tools, concepts and communication of knowledge from generation to generation. Whilst that IS absolutely amazing, it doesn't change the fact that we're still animals. PBN is about the struggle for identity within our minds.

The lyric taps into slivers of myths, fairytales and history to illustrate the theme and asks rhetorically after both verses one and three, 'Who is the stranger here?' (The answer, in case you need it: none of us, for we're all connected to the web of life, however much we may try to insulate ourselves.) In the chorus it sets the 'face' and the 'fear' (our physical and emotional states) against the 'prayer' and the 'page' (our spiritual and intellectual states). Verse three also points toward how we organise ourselves into those who are more or less 'worthy' than others - be that by way of sex, race or whatever form the discrimination takes - and allow inequalities to persevere as a result.

That said, it's not meant to be some kind of 'judgement' on humanity in song form (THE UP SHIT CREEK BLUES fits that description somewhat better...), but rather it's an observational piece. It obliquely prods and questions even while the subtext is one of hope that we will continue to become wiser in time. In a strange way - most particularly in the anthemic and epic coda with its weaving together of vocal and string melodies - it can be seen as a celebration of who we are, faults and all.




AURORA

Lead vocal: Bryony Lang
Backing vocals: Mark Northfield, Christopher Killerby, Matthew Marks
Piano: Mark Northfield
Violin: Charlie Brown
Piano accordion: Martin White
Flamenco guitar: Jason Carter
Percussion: Steve Beaver
Programming: Andrew Holdsworth

Sumptuous And Musically Multi-cultural Tale Of Supernatural Jealousy And Stolen Love

Now this is nearer that condescending box marked 'world' than it is 'almost-classical', but the latter was meant to be a rough guide rather than an exact description. Similarly, the song this is the counterpart to - SOME SONGS... - is a bit of an oddball in the 'almost pop' half, so they share that distinction. As it happens, the actual musical link between the two is a very simple one, consisting entirely of five notes. The casual listener might think five notes constitute very little of consequence, but it's curious where five notes will take you if you only let them.

The five notes in question are those sung with the lines 'Some songs know it all' and 'Some songs tell such lies': E, Eb, D, B, C. The recurring melody introduced by the piano in the slow opening section here, and subsequently played by both the violin and piano accordion, was built around these notes by simply lingering on them more than the others. (For the real musical pedants out there, the immediate repeat of the theme also deliberately avoids repeating any notes in its second half, but hey... You picked that up, right?)

Echoes of the initial theme are used in the Em sections where Bryony's vocal first arrive ('Silver the light on the water' etc) but then in the return to Am where the crowd first sing ('Aurora ahhh, your wonder does deceive...') the theme is inverted into an answering phrase so that it works upwards in an almost exact mirror of the original. One further weaving of melody to note is Bryony's Em theme appearing in the final Am section after the recap of the slow intro. 

From a musical point of view, the piece tips it hat to that wonderful bunch of musicians known as Pink Martini, a 13 piece band whose entire catalogue is a joyous melting pot of songs, languages and influences from around the world. They released a retrospective recently, but the album 'Hang On Little Tomato' would be just as good a starting point. 'Exquisite wallpaper' says their director and pianist, Thomas Lauderdale, to summarise their output; if that's true, then walls have never been so thrilling and wonderful to look at.

The piece is also heavily influenced by my work as a dance class pianist, which often calls for adaptability and a whole variety of styles and moods far beyond the simple classical ballet stereotype. There is a definite Spanish element at work here beyond the obvious bits of that language (translated by the ever helpful and groovy Kate Whitehouse, who also translated the French and Spanish lyrics in THE DEATH OF COPYRIGHT). The harmonic progression of the vigorous handclap sections and expertly played flamenco guitar running throughout certainly give a Spanish feel. (For more of Jason Carter's superb guitar playing, check out his website.)

However, the main instrumental theme and it's piano accompaniment owe more to Argentinian tango in terms of slinky chromaticism and slightly aggressive accents. Of course, there is a piano accordion involved (played by the idiosyncratic and inventive Martin White, leader of the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra) rather than the traditional bandoneon, and other aspects of the piece don't fit the tango template either. The violin part in particular develops beyond the main theme into territory which is distinctly middle-eastern in flavour, although it's worth noting that the flattened second which crops up so often is also frequently employed by the flamenco guitar.

Needless to say, I enjoy fusing musical styles in a lot of my work, so I didn't feel the need to make an exception here. Music is a truly international language; only people care about policing borders.

The actual lyric is a curious one. I had originally sketched out a more straightforward and dreamy spanish-influenced pop song called Aurora, which started both verses with the tune of what is now the Em section ('Silver the light on the water' etc). That song was a bit lightweight and fell by the wayside, but I liked the basic idea enough to develop it around this new structure, honing it into a more passionate tale of jealousy and implied desire for revenge.

The object of the singer's affection has been lured away from her hot-blooded amour by something supernatural in the form of a woman. Although the goddess Aurora in Roman mythology is one who takes a mortal lover, the northern lights (Aurora Borealis) were also viewed historically as Gods/Goddesses appearing to mortals, with the name Aurora meaning 'the red dawn'. The red is traditionally associated with war and death, but the northern lights also typically feature blue, violet and green.

The range of colours I go through suggest the northern version, but I was quite happy to fuse these two mythical settings, just as I had the musical styles. I think the end result is something quite magical in its own right, particularly with Bryony's soaring soprano purity set against Charlie Brown's fiendish fiddling. All the musicians involved here were top notch, and I'm mightily grateful for their collective input.

Those listening carefully may notice that I also cheekily use a little slice of another song from Alterations which doesn't happen to be the official counterpart to this one. Well done for noticing; unbearable smugness is your rich reward.



THE FORECASTER


Lead vocal: Jon Payne
Backing vocals: Mark Northfield, Christopher Killerby, Andrew Holdsworth
Piano: Mark Northfield
Strings: Gillon Cameron/Nick Barr/Tony Woollard

Atmospheric Art Song Of Sublime Grandeur

The first two songs on Alterations deal ostensibly with music. I thought it would be a pleasing parallel for their counterpart tracks at the end of the album to also have a connection with some mood-altering aspect of existence. This time around, it's the earth's atmosphere. Thus, from the display of northern lights we come to the more all-encompassing topic of weather.

Anyone who has been to the UK will probably know that the British love to talk about the weather. It's our default setting for small talk, when forced by circumstance to be making it (obviously a slightly embarrassed silence would be preferable). It rather helps that the prevailing south-westerly winds bring in fronts of rain on a regular basis, thus making the weather very changeable more often than not. Our latitude means we should be a lot colder than we are, but the Gulf Stream ensures otherwise, although sometimes the wind slips round to bring us chill winds or baking heat from continental Europe, depending on the season. No wonder we don't trust them.

(that's a joke, btw)

I grew up in rural Norfolk, which together with Suffolk is about as far east as the UK gets. It's mostly flat, very agricultural and - dare I say it - a little dull for a teenager. I remember whole days where it seemed as if nothing happened except the weather and the swooping of birds. With my little bedroom window looking out on to the fields beyond, I could sit, dream and doodle for hours. Discovering the music of Kate Bush in my early teens helped me tap into this appreciation of the natural world even further; she often references it in her lyrics (eg Cloudbusting/The Fog) and has upped the ante recently by releasing an entire album about the white stuff (50 Words For Snow). Bless her huge hippy heart.

The concept behind THE FORECASTER is fairly straightforward: the narrator (Jon Payne on fine form again) is singing about the poetic beauty of a slightly bizarre imaginary weather forecast which mixes the commonplace with the fanciful ('Clouds moving southwards/Hazardous ambassadors'), and in doing so he is imagining the forecaster herself singing it.

However, as explained above, one way of reading this is as a commentary on the English psyche and how we default to weather as the bedrock of our shared experience and identity, the thing which is ever shifting and yet always safe and reliable compared to wishy-washy things like emotion or politics. A broad generalisation, to be sure, but there's a kernel of truth there.

The musical connection with its counterpart, THE DEATH OF COPYRIGHT, is the chorus. TF is in 3/4, and so when the swoon of a tune from TDOC was transferred into this setting it acquired even timing. This turned it into something rather like 'The Swan' from Carnival Of The Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. (Hence the album artwork with its origami animals features an origami swan next to the lyrics for this song.)

The rest of the piece takes that impressionistic cue and musically speaking gets very French indeed (oh, the irony...) with some of the lushest harmonies between piano and strings I've ever written. For the muso-inclined, it's worth noting that the minor key cello solo in the middle instrumental section later reappears as the high string line above the final climactic chorus. Also worth noting: that chorus references both Bracknell and Exeter; the UK Met office was based in the former (we even have one of our many, many roundabouts named after it...) but moved to the latter a few years back.

One further forecast connection is with the piece 'Sailing By' by Ronald Binge. This slow gentle waltz features regularly before the late shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, and its trademark rising and falling woodwind accompaniment is something I mimicked in the string accompaniment during the verses. A very sincere and heartfelt piece of plagiarism, I can assure you, and, as such, another little nudge in the direction of the counterpart song.

 

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So there you have the complete lowdown from one to ten. There was originally an eleventh track as a brief intro, but I decided not to include it in order to make the concept neater and the opening punchier.

The anagram artwork was a concept I had way back when the album idea was first born. I particularly like the way that each one working from the top down seems to connect in some obscure way with the songs in their order on the album. Gary Collins deserves a big, big thank you for rendering that image so beautifully. He also came up with the idea of the origami animals and heart (in the wallet and lyric booklet) as a further development of the Alterations theme.