Bowie’s ‘The Next Day’: Forgiveness on a global scale

I’ve been listening to every Bowie album I own back-to-back in the closed sound booth that is my car. There’s an 80s-shaped gap in the discography with the exception of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. 90s? No Tin Machine, Earthling or the drab Heathen and Hours. Check out Last.fm kids: listeners steer well clear of these albums like they’ve been sprayed with hot excrement.

When the Beeb aired the nearly-excellent documentary Five Years a few months back, it was rather telling that they didn’t bother to cover anything after the release of the Niles Rodger’s produced Let’s Dance album. Five years in a period of ten, basically. There’s been no critical reappraisal of his Nine Inch Nails-inspired industrial concept album 1. Outside, nor did follow up 2. Contamination see release likely because Mr. Jones feared a further critical mauling. I have a soft spot for Outside because it coincided with my own discovery of the Duke and the Rez, but it is ten tracks too long. There’s a great album trapped in filler. For an artist that has always been tight when it comes to extras and never released a double LP, Outside is unusually flabby and suffers from a lack of self-editing. Now we’ve got playlists, so the Segue dross can be happily excised.

Five Years was knackered for me by the inclusion of total gobshite and public masturbator John Harris, hilariously credited as ‘journalist and author’. Bowie doesn’t give interviews and loathed giving them during his prolific periods, so it’s incredible that the documentary makers included this utter bellend who has no credentials other than ownership of a Best Of from the HMV Christmas sale. “It’s magical – he’s seen the cosmos in the bus stop” spurts forth the strangled cock on ‘Life On Mars’. “To be on Dick Cavett meant you had arrived.” How do you know, Harris? You’re British, for fucks sake. You weren’t even born or in the right country when this interview aired. Nor did any Brits know who the hell Dick Cavett was, or is. Thank you for wasting valuable screen time when we could have been watching the Dame strut around in a feather boa or hanging out in a Berlin drag club. Excellent writer and ex-NME columnist Charles Shaar Murray is permitted three brief voxpops, and Cameron Crowe disappointingly absent. Both of these journalists are important to contextualise Bowie having met and interviewed the man in person during the period the doc covers. I’m wondering if the running time was an issue and they ended up using footage from Dicksplash Harris simply because they were stuffed for material. Then again, I imagine that the current Bowie management were involved and didn’t want to include too much material that could taint his legacy or focus on all the powder he put up his beak.

 

That brings us to the latest album, The Next Day. Allegedly EMI didn’t realise a new album was due until a week before the release date, which is a little unbelievable. However, you’re not exactly going to balk when one of your biggest stars and money-spinners decides to drop a new record for the first time in nearly 10 years. And while there are some great songs on there, over repeated listens I’ve become more jaded with what now comes across as a pastiche of his previous self. The appalling album sleeve, which quite rightly has been slated from Beckenham to New Brunswick, is completely baffling. If the implication is that everything Derek has released post-Heroes is shit, then he could have at least used another photograph by Sukita Masayoshi (an exhibition of whose work I sadly missed in Osaka recently).

There are great tracks like ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’ which I’d play over and over. Then there’s stuff like ‘I’d Rather Be High’ and ‘Dirty Boys’ which cause me to grimace at the thought of a pensioner snorting blow off teenage girls, or worse. No overanalysis of the lyrics are required. This is the problem for the aging musician. Is he drawing in new fans or appealing to the old guard? The latter, I’m sure is the case. The album is as a whole a more enjoyable listening experience than the previous two, yet the positive reviews that emerged after the media scrum were all positive. SPIN gave it 5/10, and Mark Fisher called The Next Day an album of “quotidian mediocrity”, saying it was entirely undeserving of its wide acclaim and that the “wave of hyperbole it generated point to a wider malaise in contemporary music” because it proved that anything of low artistic merit could achieve success via “artfully timed PR”. That previous sentence was lifted from Wiki entirely because I couldn’t find a link online. THAT’LL DO.

Yawningly, The Independent, The Telegraph and Q gave it 5 stars and The Guardian 4 stars (and whose pre- and post-release coverage was daily and mind-numbing). Publications that all appeal to the dull demographic I belong to: white, male, 18-34. Though I doubt many 18 year olds were buying either the record or reading about it.

Yet I haven’t eradicated The Next Day from my iPod. I didn’t go so far as to buy the vinyl or the double CD set, which I’m thankful as I recently purged my entire CD collection. Perhaps it’s still too new to appreciate. It took me five years (bumtish) to understand what the hell Tool were doing with Aenima. It’s bland, it’s inoffensive and oft unmoving. But it’s Bowie, and we have to be thankful that he could be arsed to give it one more push before he heads off to the great big cloud in the sky for multi-millionaires. We aren’t invited.

The Making of ‘A Hero Of Our Time’ (Or: Why Does It Take 5 Years For Amy Blue To Record An Album?)

Yesterday, I uploaded the new Amy Blue album, A Hero Of Our Time. For most people, that’s not particularly interesting. For the band, who are not world famous or signed to a major label, it ended up becoming the difficult second album. Yet, I’m sitting here now wondering why did take so long.

Some of the songs were written as far back as 2008 but were never considered for our (shorter) first album, The Fortress & The Fatalist. That was our first trip into the studio and was of course an eye-opening experience. But having been in the studio and seeing what it takes to record, I think we all realised that there were other ways of getting the songs done without having to spend so much money and go through the stress and misery of having to plan for a full day out with cars loaded up with gear, grub and grumpy bandmates. We felt the pressure of the clock and at the time were frustrated with our bassist who failed to make any of the sessions. Simon and I recorded the bass parts ourselves, though I have never been confident of my own bass playing. Totally different discipline and I end up playing it like a six string. So inevitably, the parts weren’t complex or particularly interesting.

When we booked our studio time to record AHOOT, we didn’t have an album title in mind nor a real direction – just a bunch of songs that we’d been collecting since Trev joined the band as the new bassist. He’d brought with him a positive attitude and a sense of humour, and slotted into our dynamic well. We loaded up a couple of cars with gear, grub and tired bandmates (we weren’t grumpy at the time) and headed to Random Colours in North London to record with Rich Johnston, who’d produced our first record. This time, we’d decided with Rich to try a different approach to the recording – to capture our live sound by playing together in the open studio space. It didn’t turn out how we’d hoped.

The night before, I was pretty wound up from driving through London past lunatics and from the anticipation of recording. I didn’t sleep a wink. Recording is one of my favourite things to do, and I was looking forward to the sessions. We got to the studio early, set up, had a cup of tea, then cracked on. It was January, and the studio was freezing cold. We had fan heaters blasting and I must have drank about 10 cups of tea before lunch. We cut ‘The Language of Ghosts’ first, a song that Simon and I recorded as a two-piece for our first EP back in 2006 but as a four-piece. This version was heavier and more intense than our electro/demo version and we’d been playing it around London as a full band for a couple of years. I do generally believe that you shouldn’t go back and rerecord a song as there’s always something new to be working on, but I was particularly fond of ‘Ghosts’ and felt we could transform it into something more intense (and shoegazey, which was the original intention).

 

We recorded as quickly as possible, but by the end of the day the strain was beginning to take its toll, and I nearly collapsed during ‘Scissors’, the longest song we had. The band continued working without me while I took some time to lie down in the studio next door in the dark. I was worn out, overtired, stressed out. At the time, I wasn’t in a very good way. Lex drove me home later where I crashed out and slept like the dead. The next day we were back at the studio to continue the sessions.

After hearing the mixes, I think we all agreed that the performances were shit.

Lex was right in saying that we worked best in our rehearsal space, close together and without other parties looking over our shoulders. We needed the pressure off to do our best performances. Even though there was a bit of ‘Urgh, we have to do it all AGAIN’, we… did it again. This time, we kept things simple – recording the drums and bass and a lead guitar track. No vocals, no extra guitars to muddy the basic take. After this, we sifted through these recordings and ditched the duffers – false starts, missed beats, etc. Then comes the overdubbing, which to you recording n00bs means recording more parts on top of the basic take. Simon and I like this stage – we’re often still writing new sections or melodies up until this point, plus it gives you opportunity to experiment in your own time. Finally, the vocals go on the top and the thing gets mixed, mastered, then released.

This time, there were some decisions made that resulted in Trev leaving the band. Simon was unhappy with his part on one of the songs and ‘did a B0lly’ (as we call it) where he took the executive decision to rerecord the part himself. With all of us working, and most of our rehearsals taken up with working on a vast set of new songs that had been written in the months following the January sessions, there never seemed to be the time. I don’t think either Simon or I felt that Trev wanted to put in the extra time to redo his parts either, or that he may get upset that it was decided what he’d done wasn’t good enough. It’s very hard to talk about this sort of thing, particularly when none of us are very confrontational people. You could argue that ‘doing it yourself’ is not the way to handle this sort of situation, but of course, you aren’t in our band or know the personalities involved. In retrospect, I feel it’s a great shame that Trev decided to walk out over a pride issue, as it’s something that we should have talked about, but I don’t think he ever wanted to. He came to the mixing sessions for at least half of the songs and gave his feedback and I think he was pleased with how things were going.

We mixed for around six months. Rerecorded guitar parts. Redid vocals. Our friend Tom came in later on to help with the mixing and I think improved what we’d done a great deal. By the end of 2012, the record was pretty much done with the exception of the artwork. At this point, I sat on it, listening to it over and over and agonising over various things that irked me. I sent it to friends around the world and asked what they thought. The thing got sidelined for a bit while I was playing in A Thousand Knives, and for my short attention span had become a bit stale after 18 months of new songs and jamming that Amy Blue had done before Lex and Simon took a break during last year. We reconvened before I headed out to Japan for an all day recording session, with Tom on bass, and got about 15 tracks on tape. Look for that in 2018!

I’m glad AHOOT is finally out there. It was a slog, but I doubt you’ll hear any of that in a 3 minute pop-punk song. Simon really carried the weight on this one – the artwork (I’d also like the thank AJ for helping out with the cover design), the title, the extensive recordings. It is very much his baby and we’re both proud of it.

 

Archive Trawl #1: Trent Reznor on the making of The Fragile

I’m sitting on thousands of files that I’ve cut and pasted from various websites and newsgroups over the years, and stumbled across a few gems this morning in the archive. It’s interesting for me at least with NIN returning as a live act at Fujirock in July (which I’m hoping to get to go to and review). It’s actually cobbled together from a few cut/pastes around 1998, a year before it was released, but I’ve rewritten parts of it where it sounded like a 5 year old had typed it up. While it doesn’t enlighten you to any rarities or odd stories about studio excess, it does at least feature a couple of Trent Reznor quotes. Enjoy, and comment below.

When Nine Inch Nails recorded Pretty Hate Machine in 1989, the audio tracks were not recorded digitally, but to analogue tapes. The album was later sequenced on a Mac Plus. Their second album The Downward Spiral was a different case. It was completely recorded digitally, just like Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar, which Reznor produced in 1995 in his New Orleans studio.

“Instead of recording to tapes, I played parts of the songs into my computer and after that I could make loops and stuff,” Reznor says. “If you want to write a song, just put a loop from a drum track, and then add bass and guitars into it. After that you can do whatever you like with the song: use samples, put on the vocals and so on. This way it’s easy to make remixes of a song when you have the basis of it saved in your computer.”

On his third album The Fragile, Reznor will be recording the tracks digitally as well, but he has something new in mind too. He’s going to use different background vocalists, guest musicians and many real and exotic instruments. “I’ve gathered pieces from many different music styles in these few years and I’m trying to find a way to mix them.” Trent didn’t feel he was breaking new ground writing merely on piano, which could explain why he’s drafted in a host of guest musicians to give the record a new flavour.

Trent talked about his upcoming album saying they’ve finished 20 songs, and recorded 25 more demos for what could possibly be a double album. Adrian Belew, Helmet’s Page Hamilton, Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin, Power Station drummer Tony Thompson, and David Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson all have contributed to the recordings. NIN veteran Charlie Clouser and Danny Lohner return as well.

As for the sound of the record, Trent says it’s like “Tom Waits on a bayou filtered through a funk blender and slowed down.” He also admitted that The Fragile is “not as knee-jerk muscle-flexingly angry” as his past work, but to “never fear, it doesn’t sound like a band playing. We went to incredible lengths pushing technology to do things it shouldn’t do.” The album is due out in June [NB: it was actually released in September 1999, over a year after this was written].

Trent was also approached by R&B singer Aaliyah to produce a track on her upcoming album. No word on if he’ll do it. Sister Soleil has collaborated with Trent in New Orleans on a song for the movie Stigmata, he’s also been asked to mix some material from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, a project put together by producer Mike Simpson, Prince Paul and The Automator.