Tag Archives: Kevin Shields

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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Coast is Clear – Curve

Bands, all bands, have context. Curve’s context is not the plants and refineries of Grangemouth, like the Cocteau Twins, or the low-achieving, living-in-penury, C86 world of My Bloody Valentine. Curve’s context is Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox

The Eurythmics were not cool in 1990 when Curve formed. They weren’t cool when Stewart was making cheesy-listening smooth-jazz/pop crossover hits with Candy Dulfer. They weren’t cool when Lennox decided to measure herself against Aretha Franklin and didn’t even have the humility to find herself wanting. If they had, briefly, been cool, five minutes either side of releasing Sweet Dreams in 1983, they had already fallen from cool by the time they hired a bass player called Dean Garcia for their live band, later the same year.

Garcia hung in with his insufferable bandmates until Stewart introduced him to a young singer called Toni Halliday in 1985. They formed a duo called State of Play, playing post-New Pop, synthesiser-based pop music, with huge programmed drums and funk-influenced rhythm guitars. Their music lacked much in the way of spark or originality, and its grim, joyless efficiency (learned at the feet of Lennox and Stewart, no doubt) failed to find an audience.

Halliday – ambitious, photogenic and, truth to tell, a bit of a chancer – then went for it a second time, now as a solo artist. Her solo album was in the mould of Roxette and post-Go-Gos Belinda Carlisle – huge drums (again), pop-rock guitars with the odd squeally metal solo, and big harmonies in the choruses. It was a better example of its type than State of Play, but again, it sank without trace. At this point, probably no one in popular music was carrying more baggage than Toni Halliday.

In one of the most enormous stylistic about-turns in pop history, Halliday once again hooked up with Dean Garcia, this time as Curve. Their guitars were loud, the vocals were mixed low, the drum loops were obvious. They were a shoegaze band.

Shoegaze was an easy bandwagon to jump on, an easy sound to adopt, and Curve were pros. All they needed to do was stand still, look down at their feet, appear somewhat ill at ease, and play tremendously loud. Halliday and Garcia had been around the block a few times each, they had contacts and by now they knew what they were doing in the studio and on stage, so the this shoegaze thing was almost too easy. They welded furious guitar noise to oddly insistent melodies, unlike their contemporaries (Slowdive for instance), many of whose songs are so evanescent they practically fade away while you listen to them. Perhaps they adopted their new sound too studiously. Maybe they’d have been bigger if they’d dialled back the guitars a bit – listening to the chorus of Coast is Clear is like listening to music in a wind tunnel, particularly in its viciously over-compressed remastered form. As it was, they stayed a cult act, best remembered for doing pretty much everything Garbage ever did, five or six years before the latter act formed. By that time, Curve themselves were chasing the big-beat trend, leaving behind the wind-tunnel guitars in favour of an aggressive rock-dance hybrid, as in thrall to Nine Inch Nails and the Chemical Brothers as My Bloody Valentine.

Never respected in the music press, who knew all about Halliday’s big-hair period and Garcia’s Eurythmy, Curve nevertheless received an after-the-event blessing from the King of the Jazzmaster himself – Kevin Shields – who played on their mid-noughties comeback album, when they returned to guitar-led shoegazing. Garcia (now in his mid-fifties) can’t leave it alone – he’s in a shoegaze/electronic duo with Halliday’s daughter, Rose Berlin (less vixenish than Halliday, perhaps, but very obviously her mother’s daughter). I don’t know if that’s sweet or creepy.

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