Tag Archives: Jerry Cantrell

Whatever happened to the distorted guitar?

I never hear really layered distorted guitar sounds on modern indie records – it’s completely out of style. If you want to hear that kind of thing, you’d have to go back to older records, or to bands that began in that era and haven’t shed all vestiges of that sound, and few of them are nowadays operating at an artistic peak.

Like a good recorded drum sound, the pleasures of a well engineered distorted guitar sound lie in the physical response it creates through texture.

Distorted guitar is an incredibly textural sound source. Distorted chord-based rhythm parts occupy an enormous amount of sonic real estate across a huge frequency range, partly due to the fact that their heavily compressed nature make them essentially a steady-state presence within a mix.

The combination of extreme sustain, low transient quality and huge frequency range makes distorted guitar extremely malleable within a mix. You can essentially manipulate a heavy guitar signal with downstream EQ the way a Hammond organ player can manipulate her sound with the drawbars.* The best practitioners of the fine art of layering distorted guitars (for me, that’s people like Kevin Shields, Jerry Cantrell, Billy Corgan and J Mascis – I was never a fan of the scooped, no-mid-range sound of ’80s and ’90s metal), along with engineers and producers like Dave Jerden and Butch Vig, used this knowledge to create an almost orchestral richness to their guitar sounds.

They could craft sounds to be hard or soft, aggressive or comforting, sharp or ambient, through the combination of different guitars, amps and processing when layering duplicate or complementary voicings over several tracks. Those who took it furthest would split one guitar performance over two or three amps (selected for their characteristics in different frequency ranges), then switch guitars and repeat, then play a complementary part and repeat again. All in the analogue realm, too, meaning that bouncing of tracks would be required in order to keep going once real estate on the 2-inch tape was used up.

Outside of metal (which if I’m totally honest I don’t listen to all that much), this is kind of a lost art now, which makes me a little sad. The tools have changed, too: digital modelling amps, reamp boxes and amp simulation plug-ins are as common if not more common among the musicians who are still grappling with the beast that is distorted guitar as valve amps and analogue effects pedals. Modern mix topologies aren’t hugely kind to bands that deal a lot in distorted guitars, either. It’s enough to make me a bit wistful, thinking back to the days when a rock band wasn’t a rock band unless their guitars were just blasting out a sea of white noise. Ah me. The years go by so fast.

 

*Much of what I know about the science and art of recording distorted guitars, I owe to a recording engineer and producer called Tim Gilles, who was known online as Slipperman. Slipperman’s guide to recording distorted guitars, which consisted of a series of forum posts and podcasts, was a hugely informative, frequently digressive and entertainingly foul-mouthed bible for me 10 years ago when I was trying to learn the basics of recording and devouring every source of knowledge that was cheap or free. Wherever Slippy is now, I wish him well.

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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.

Dead Air – Heatmiser (or, Elliott Smith’s embarrassing baby photos)

Perceptions about Heatmiser have been distorted by comments made about the band by Elliott Smith (one of the band’s singer/guitarists) after the fact: that their first album was an “embarrassment”, that none of them liked the music they were playing, that they were following fashion rather than making the music they wanted to, that Smith was “acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”

Hmm. Maybe.

Missteps that we made in the recent past are of course liable to embarrass us far more than mistakes made years and years ago, so when asked about Heatmiser in 1997 or 1998, Smith was not in the best place to be fair, even-handed or insightful about the group’s accomplishments and limitations. So it seems likely that he wasn’t a prisoner in his own band, as he portrayed himself later, and that he was instead merely trying to distance himself from the group by presenting the McCartney-esque acoustic craftsman as the real Elliott Smith, and not the sneering Elvis Costello-gone-hardcore persona he adopted on the first two Heatmiser records. In fact, both were facets of his creativity, and equal ones; artists do, after all, contain multitudes.

He was worrying more than necessary. While his attempts at Ian McKaye- or Page Hamilton-style bawling are sometimes unintentionally a little comic on Dear Air (due as much to the incongruousness of it all – in light of his later public image – as anything else), what’s most notable about Heatmiser’s first record is its commitment. For a band that supposedly didn’t like what they were doing, they sure played it as if they meant it. Listening to the overlapping vocals of Neil Gust and Smith on, say, Stray, and tell me they’re half-hearted.

Nevertheless, they sometimes come off as callow, like a band that wanted to be Fugazi but didn’t quite have the chops (vocal or arrangemental) to pull it off. While bass player Brandt Peterson might have powered a version of the band that was somewhat lighter on its feet, the recordings the band made in its early days were absolutely buried underneath hugely distorted guitars. Overly distorted, really, even in the context of the era. A couple of cleaner overdubs doubling the main parts would probably have helped with clarity, but these guys were young and inexperienced in the studio and evidently didn’t know this.

There are songs on Dear Air worth persisting with, though. Smith’s lyrical style was pretty close to fully formed from the get-go, and while this may speak more of later artistic arrested development than early precocity, it does mean that there are good lines sprinkled throughout his songs. There’s some good ones, too, in Neil Gust’s tracks. Perhaps the album’s best moments come when Gust and Smith sing at the same time, trading lines in almost a call and response style, egging each other on, as on Bottle Rocket and Dirt. It seems to prompt Smith’s most confident and least self-conscious vocals; there’s an excitement to these performances that gives the lie to Smith’s later claims that no one in the band really liked the music they were playing.

Unfortunately the first half of the record feels a lot stronger than the second. The only dud in the run from Still to Stray is second track Candyland. But things don’t pick up again until the closing three tracks, Lowlife, Buick and Dead Air. Cannibal and Don’t Look Down are about as nondescript as grunge-era rock gets, and the record would actually be improved by their excision.

Let’s stop to think about Lowlife for a second, with its drop-tuned palm mutes and chromatic riffing. The idea floated by many (not least by Smith himself) that the Elliott Smith of early Heatmiser was inauthentic and that his songs went into the band’s meat-grinder and came out grungy and unrecognisable, is revealed by a song like Lowlife (and Stray and Dead Air) as fanciful. Those songs were written to be performed this way; they were not delicate fingerpicked tracks that his grunge-obsessed band mates somehow turned into rock music. Consider, also, how many of Smith’s early solo tracks are built on tense, sometimes outrght aggressive strumming, rather than fingerpicking: Roman Candle, Last Call, Christian Brothers, Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town. These are rock songs played without a band.

Dead Air, taken as a whole, is actually a qualified success, certainly as strong as follow-up Cop and Speeder, towards which Smith felt more warmly, and maybe stronger. Dear Air has been unfairly maligned (not least by Smith himself), for reasons that go beyond the quality of the songs and whether or not Smith “meant it” at the time.

If Heatmiser are a marginal group (and they are), it’s because they were transparently not as impressive, or as heavy, as their influences. Their decision to turn the guitars up was presumably their own, but it is difficult to write expansive melodies over drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffs (my huge admiration for Jerry Cantrell stems from his ability to do precisely that). An artist’s work will sound most substantial when it is most itself. There’s nothing slight about Smith’s work on Either/Or and XO, no matter how delicate the presentation sometimes is. There’s a weight to it (and an excitement too) because the songs themselves are substantial and animated from within. They sound big and expansive because Smith was confident in his material, and that confidence shines through. Perhaps it was that conviction that’s missing from Heatmiser, replaced by self-consciousness, and it makes the band seem smaller than it was. But Dead Air is very far from a dead loss, and for Elliott Smith fans it’s definitely worth hearing to understand their man’s creative journey. Anyone who appreciates his tense, wracked early songs will recognise those same qualities in much of the band’s work.

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Heatmiser in 1993 promo picture. Smith on left in cap

Elliott Smith in concert during Elliott Smith in Concert, 1998 at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)

Smith in 1998, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta

Would? – Opeth

Jerry Cantrell knew more about the layering of guitars than any of his contemporaries, maybe with the exceptions of Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins and Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine. But whereas Shields (and often Corgan) made heavy use of overdubbing to create a wall of sound that was soft and dreamy – an aural comfort blanket – Cantrell wanted his guitars to smash your face in. They were huge and aggressive. They dominated the mix, crowding everything else out, leaving Layne Staley and Sean Kinney having to fight to be heard. The reunion album that AiC put out in 2009 attempted to give the vocals and drums a little bit of extra focus while making the guitars even bigger – the results proved the old audio engineer’s saying: If everything is big, nothing is big.

Opeth are a Swedish group who started out playing death metal, but have got more multi-dimensional (and to my ears more interesting) as time has gone on. Most of their recent music foreswears death grunts, double kick-drum rolls and blastbeats in favour of acoustic guitars, twisty time signatures and a haunting, more pastoral vibe. Opeth’s main man Mikael Åkerfeldt is in the tradition of guitar layerers that runs through Cantrell, Shields and Corgan, back through Bob Mould, Tom Scholz and Lindsey Buckingham and all the way back to Les Paul, so it’s no surprise he’d be an AiC fan. Opeth’s version of Would? (a B-side from 2008) is mighty fine and extremely well played, particularly by drummer Martin Axenrot, who can drum rings around Sean Kinney, or anyone else. But it’s great in a different way to the original, in a way that leads you to appreciate the original more.

Opeth’s version is precise and clean, and sounds like it was probably played to a click track. As much as a record like this can, it grooves. Alice in Chains’s version is a barely restrained race to the finish, with an ear-grabbing tempo increase over the course of the first verse and chorus. This is not necessarily a negative thing at all; listen closely to some Led Zeppelin if you think rigid adherence to a fixed tempo is necessary for good-feeling rock music. Åkerfeldt sings the song calmly; he sounds like a man taking a detached, almost scientific, interest in his physical and emotional disintegration. Layne Staley sang it like he sang everything else: like a man in agony, someone in way too much pain to be able to get any kind of distance from or perspective on himself. Similary, Åkerfeldt’s guitar sound is heavily distorted but clinical and cleaner than Cantrell’s, which has more midrange content and is a little “messier” and less controlled tonally.

While it’s likely that Dave Jerden (the producer and engineer on Facelift, Dirt, Sap and Jar of Flies) had input into the structure of the songs, Cantrell is nevertheless recognisably a master of song structure (try to think of any similar rock song as tightly wound and economical as Them Bones). Åkerfeldt inadvertently proves as much by removing the last repetition of the chorus in order to double the length of his solo; without that last vocal chorus, the sense of unstoppable momentum that we carry into the killer last section (‘Am I wrong?’ with its huge, disorienting plunge from C to F#) is reduced, and with it goes a little of the song’s emotional wallop. And that’s what I dig about AiC – for all the distortion and dissonance, they were a rock band with great, tightly written songs, not riffs for riffs’ sake. If you’ve never given them a go (and for years I didn’t – they seemed “too metal” to teenage me), you may be surprised.

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Alice in Chains (left), Opeth (right)

New song (that is, a song that I wrote in 2012 re-recorded)

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 2

Previously — our author hears What’s the Frequency Kenneth by R.E.M., wonders what the hell it all means

R.E.M., it’s safe to say, had not gone collectively mad. Several things had happened since Automatic for the People. The band had decided that, if they were going to tour, it might be good to have some bigger, louder, more arena-ready material to take with them. Bill Berry in particular had been keen to make a louder record after Out of Time, but all their strongest material was acoustic, so they recorded that instead and didn’t tour behind the album. This time round, though, he was insisting the band plug back in and turn it up. Finally, and here we’re into the realms of speculation, the emergence of Nirvana et al. over 1991 and 1992 had created a very different environment to the one in which R.E.M. had last been a working ‘rock’ band; this one was more sympathetic to them, indeed looked to them as inspiration, and they likely felt eager to align themselves with it. That Cobain died in the middle of the Monster sessions doubtless put a crimp on this, but it seems reasonable to guess it was part of their thinking when they began.

Monster‘s basic tracks were cut by Scott Litt and David Colvin on a soundstage in Atlanta, with overdubs added at Criteria in Florida, Ocean Way in LA, and Kingsway in New Orleans. This was a big-budget, protracted process, and the finished album suggests a degree of overthinking. A natural response to the idea of a making a road-ready rock album would have been to cut the album essentially live, add just the minimum of overdubs, and mix it so that the vocals were perhaps a touch sunken in, with the bass and drums forward and the guitars (maybe one each side to reflect the fact that the band would tour with a second guitarist) left to glue everything together.

That’s not quite what Monster is. The guitars, on the louder tracks, are thrust to the very front of the mix, making the rhythm section sound tiny in comparison, and leaving Stipe near inaudible. The latter is not a big deal; R.E.M. had made a lot of records at the start of their career where Stipe’s vocal was low in the mix and there’s plenty of precedent for low-mixed vocals in rock, from prime-era Stones onwards. But a rock album where the bass and drums aren’t providing the tracks’ energy and ‘push’ is not likely to be wholly satisfying. Now, whether Litt and the band decided to spotlight Buck rather than Berry because the latter’s drum tracks didn’t quite come up to snuff or (more likely) because they ‘big guitars’ was the fashionable thing to do, who can say. Litt, in any case, is not a producer noted for his work with heavy bands. But it’s noticeable how much more depth and power the drums have at the start of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (track 4) than they do on the previous three songs, simply because they’re not competing with a big wall o’Buck.

So the sound of Monster isn’t that of a straightforward rock album. But neither are the songs straightforward rock songs, in either form or content. Many critics of R.E.M. have noted that their songs often lacked really strong choruses, a strange quality given that this band was once arguably the biggest in the world. This observation is overstated on the whole, and it misses the point that R.E.M. songs work by the accretion of one small hook after another, rather than by having one big killer chorus (although they’ve done that too on occasion). But Monster does have a few songs that seem to deflate a bit they get to the chorus; Star 69 and Bang and Blame are the biggest offenders, the latter really suffering because of how promising the verse is.

That’s not true of all of its tracks, though. If Monster is, Kenneth apart, better in its softer moments (I Don’t Sleep, I Dream; Strange Currencies; and Tongue, a falsetto soul ballad that succeeds in spite of the fact that Stipe is not Al Green), its last third is its strongest. I Took Your Name, with Stipe’s arch Iggy Pop-as-corporate-drone vocal, takes the sawing tremolo guitar from Crush With Eyeliner but puts it to more intriguing use, without Thurston Moore stunt casting; Let Me In – the band’s Kurt Cobain tribute – has a beautiful, incandescent distorted guitar sound and Stipe’s most plaintive and emotionally direct vocal on the record; Circus Envy thins out the guitars and lets Bill Berry push the song on, which challenge he responds to; and album closer, You, combines a thumping floor-tom rhythm with a throbbing D-minor guitar drone and an eastern-tinged riff, finishing the album on an ominous, ambiguous note.

Monster functions as a conceptual unity, too, with song after song about the nature and fluidity of identity and sexuality, Stipe’s lyrics often seeming to run counter to the music, so that one seems to be a commentary on the other. It’s worth bearing in mind the difficulty of the task Stipe was faced with in writing lyrics for a rock album after two widely praised but often sombre and meditative records. The band may have been able to take a cue here and there from their contemporaries, but Stipe couldn’t have borrowed another writer’s idiom (whether that writer had been Eddie Vedder, Thurston Moore, Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, or anyone) without it being utterly crass and inappropriate. He had to define his own themes and style for this record, and he more or less completely succeeded. That was no small achievement.

Yet Monster will forever be known as the record that second-hand shops won’t touch; the record that 4 million people bought and 4 million people sold back. It wasn’t the triumph that Automatic was, and it’s not as various as New Adventures in Hi-Fi (on which, as a bonus, the band does sound more like a band), but it deserves a way better rep than it currently has. There probably won’t be too many ‘Monster at 20′ retrospectives this year, but if there are, let’s hope they give an undervalued and brave record a fair shake.

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This is a picture of Michael Stipe and Cher – does there have to be a reason?

Electric guitar sounds and the recording of them, part 2

Thinking about it, the tones I admire tend to fall into two categories. There are those arrived by tracking lots of parts with distinct but complementary tones, in order to build up a sound that couldn’t be arrived at with any one guitar/amp combination. Others happen when a player simply has a great tone and the arrangements they’re working with give them the space to let it shine: Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Curtis Mayfield, Andy Summers, Jimmy Page, Roger McGuinn would all fall into this category for me. None of these players functioned in particularly dense musical settings, and certainly none of them (not even Page) made their trademark the kind of persistent, steady-state energy that happens when you put together a wall of a dozen or so distorted guitars.

However, the latter practice is ubiquitous in most forms of modern rock music. At some point – and I guess it happened in the seventies, as 16- and 24-track recording became pretty much standard in professional studios – someone realised that just because the band had, say, two guitarists, that didn’t mean they had to stop putting down rhythm-guitar tracks once they’d done one each. They could do two each. Four each, even. In fact, if they were needed you could bounce tracks together and just keep going.

I don’t know who it was who made this breakthrough, but the practice grew more and more widespread so that for getting on for thirty years now this is how the majority of guitar-based rock music has been produced: drums, bass, then big old wall of guitar, then vocals and solos and any extra bits. An awful lot of real estate, then, both in terms of tracks and in terms of space within a rock mix is given over to creating a bed of distorted guitars.

As mentioned above, a standard way of doing this is to blend together different but complementary tones: a classic example is doubling a powerful midrangey guitar, like a Les Paul, with something brighter and cutting, such as a Strat or Tele. This way you can get a tone on record that you can’t in real life. If there’s a guitar that gives you the sustain and creamy midrange of an LP with the clarity and cut of a Tele, I’ve yet to hear it.

I love this approach to recording guitars. I grew up with it. I do it myself. The first rock band I really listened to as a teenager was Nirvana and I loved the guitar sounds on Nevermind, so hearing Butch Vig take the rhythm-guitar bed on Drain You apart for the Classic Albums DVD was really cool. But Cobain was just the tip of the iceberg: I later came across the playing of Bob Mould, Jerry Cantrell, Kevin Shields and Billy Corgan, all of whom were great at creating a huge wall of guitar by various means. Of course, credit also has to go to the producers and engineers these players were working with: Dave Jerden, for example, who produced AiC’s Facelift and Dirt albums, had a technique whereby he split the guitar signal to three different amps, picked for their qualities in certain frequency ranges, so he’d have one amp to give him his low end, one for the midrange and one for the top. And anyone who appreciates a wall of blazing guitar will tell you that Cantrell’s sound on Dirt absolutely rules.

Other guitar sounds I really love? Angus and Malcolm Young on Back in Black. Bowie on Rebel, Rebel. Nile Rogers on anything. Various Beatles sounds, too: Lennon on Ticket to Ride (the first Beatles record where the guitar is pushed to the point where it’s starting to really saturate and come alive), Harrison’s distorted tone on Strawberry Fields Forever (about 2.55 in), the lead guitar on Fixing a Hole, McCartney’s solo on Taxman. Great stuff, all of it.

I’ll be back later with one little practical tip then I’ll give the guitars a rest for a while.

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Dave Jerden knows how to record guitars and he’s not taking any guff from the likes of you. ©Gonzo Sandoval.