Tag Archives: Def Leppard

Holiday harmonies, part 3: Them Bones – Alice in Chains

Yes, I am serious.

Alice in Chains are heavy rock’s foremost vocal harmony group.The harmonies sung by Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell are as fundamental to AiC’s sound as the harmonies sung by the Beach Boys were to theirs.

Cantrell’s songwriting accomplishments are far vaster than is widely acknowledged. Of his generation and in his locale, only Kurt Cobain was a more inventive melodist. The difference is that while part of Cobain’s genius was to have his melodies acknowledge and emphasise the key notes from the non-tonic chords he often used in his idiosyncratic progressions, Cantrell wrote expansive melodies with prominent vocal harmony lines over heavily chromatic riffs where the harmonic sands are constantly shifting under the listener’s feet and it’s never entirely clear what key we’re supposed to be in.

How do you write a song like Them Bones? How do you decide what notes to sing? How do you then decide where to harmonise? Them Bones is unsettling from the start. It begins suddenly and violently in 7/8 time, with pummeling drop-tuned guitars and Layne Staley howling in pain. His cries only get more desperate and anguished as the song goes on.

The verse is dominated by Staley and Cantrell’s ear-jangling harmonies. They sing wide-open fifths (Staley an A, Cantrell a D on top*), but over a riff constantly cycling upwards in semi-tones, the D5 that the singers hold feels very unsettled. The whole thing song is unsettled, almost unbearably tense, only partly relieved by a chorus (once again sung in close harmony) that temporarily finds the song in 4/4 time and, relatively, stable harmonic ground.

Cantrell and Staley repeat this trick throughout Dirt, the band’s masterpiece. Think of the “She won’t let me high” section of Rain When I Die, or the verses of Would? – Cantrell seemed to have access to a store of creepy minor scales only he knew about, making an Alice in Chains song instantly recognisable, for all the claims made at the time about their dubious grunge cred. The re-formed version of the group, with Comes with the Fall singer William DuVall replacing the deceased Staley and Cantrell’s voice now the dominant element of the vocal blend, still pull this trick off. Note the single Check My Brain, from 2009’s Black Gives Way to Blue, which sounds like nothing so much as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi sitting in with Fleetwood Mac.

That’s the thing with AiC: vocal harmonies are seldom a foregrounded element in darker, heavier rock music, being more associable with pop metal à la Def Leppard and their ilk. Nobody else has quite done what these guys do, and I don’t think they’ve ever got due recognition for that uniqueness.

* I’ve discussed the song in the key as written and notated in most music books. The band are tuned down half a step, though, so while they play in D, it sounds in C# minor.

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Wide open spaces, tiny little rooms; or, recorded drum sounds in the late 1970s

In the seventies somebody decided that all ambient sound was bad. Studios created this completely unnatural environment with not a hint of any reverberant sound coming off of anything. And if you listen to a lot of records from the seventies, the deadness on them, I find, it makes my skin crawl.

Bruce Springsteen, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town

In 1976 a long-running, well-respected band with roots going back to the English blues-rock boom of the late 1960s were in a California studio, making the follow-up to their first popularly successful record in the US. While astutely and occasionally adventurously arranged (principally by the group’s guitarist Lindsey Buckingham), Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is not a sonically radical record and it adheres to the engineering and production orthodoxies of its time in most respects. The drums may be mixed a bit louder than the Eagles had theirs, but they were recorded close and dry, and presented that way in the mix. The snare has a pillowy, plumpy sound: it goes ‘duh’ rather than ‘tssch’. The drums on Dreams go ‘buh duh, buh-buh duh’, not ‘boom tssch, boom-boom tssch’. This dampened drum sound, coupled with the sense of closeness to the band that results from the relative lack of echo and reverb, is the defining sonic quality of seventies records.

In the autumn of 1977, Bruce Springsteen, working at the Record Plant in New York, had had enough of it. Perhaps his band only rehearsed in vast, reverberant spaces, but he felt that the sound of the times was unnatural and that the music should be as big on record as it was at a big show, which, since the success of Born to Run, was the increasingly the sort of show he now played, as he moved out of clubs and into theatres. In particular he wanted a big, reverberant drum sound that was all about body, not attack. This type of drum sound felt “bigger” to him than the standard, damped-and-dry 1970s sound, and he was willing to suffer for it.

In The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen, bassist Garry Tallent and engineer Thom Panunzio recall ruefully the torturous process Bruce put them through trying to get a drum sound that discarded the sonic qualities that had thitherto been synonymous with high-budget records in the seventies. While Springsteen sat on a couch in the control room, with engineer Panunzio and producer Jimmy Iovine working the desk and attending to microphones, drummer Max Weinberg was required to hit his snare drum. If Bruce could hear the attack of the stick hitting the skin – which naturally enough he always could – he’d drawl “Stick”, and the engineer and producer would be required to do something to lessen the apparency of the stick hitting a skin. But, of course, that’s exactly what was happening. He nearly drove his bandmates and the studio staff crazy with his obsession. Usually it’s engineers and producers driving musicians crazy with their quest for perfect drum sounds.

The result of all this work is a drum sound that is the opposite of close. But Weinberg’s snare drum on Darkness goes “tssch” even less than Mick Fleetwood’s on Rumours. It’s more like a cannonball hitting a crash mat in a cathedral. It’s an absurd sound, and Darkness is one of the records that began a decade and a half of absurd drum sounds (other key influences being Bowie’s Low and of course, a couple of years down the line, Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight from Face Value).

In 1981, Fleetwood Mac’s breakout star Stevie Nicks fell into this enormous new soundworld when Jimmy Iovine (and Tom Petty) produced Nicks’s solo debut album Bella Donna at LA’s Studio 55, recreating the gargantuan Max Weinberg/Darkness on the Edge of Town drum sound on the West Coast. The subtext was clear: This is my own thing. This is not a Fleetwood Mac album. There’s tons of space around the instruments, Russ Kunkel sounds like he’s playing the world’s biggest drums with a pair of clubs – it’s all very impressive. But I do wonder what kind of acoustic spaces Springsteen was used to if this was his idea of a “natural” sound picture when he began work on Darkness. It’s as much an exaggerated presentation of music played within an acoustic space as the damped, small-room sound of seventies clichés. Record-making, after all, is not about documentary depictions, if it ever was; it stopped being that a long time ago, the first time someone panned a drum kit in stereo.

Fleetwood Mac themselves never really went the way of the ambient drum sound, even at the height of the silliness in the late eighties. As much as it was possible for a superstar band to go a different way from the crowd to pursue their own sound, they did, and so Fleetwood’s drums on Tango in the Night are relatively small, relatively close, by the standards of that decade at least. Certainly they are not the musical heavy artillery of, say, Bad or Hysteria from the same era. Listening to Stevie Nicks on Bella Donna, then, represents the sonic road not taken for Fleetwood Mac. It’s a curious experience, not always pleasant for someone like me who loves dry drum sounds and thinks Rumours the best-sounding record ever made.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to Gypsy, from the 1982 Mac album Mirage, on which the band went back to their little room, where they should be.

nickspetty

Who’s draggin’ whose heart around? Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, 1977.