6. Subway Dwellers

The cover of the single is a picture of City Hall Station on the Broad Street line in Philadelphia, which partially inspired the song:

Here is Gabriel’s piano tracking video for ‘Subway Dwellers’:

For Travis’s tracking video, see last week’s post on Retreat Underground.

Read the lyrics to ‘Subway Dwellers’.

Gabriel’s Notes: The chord progression of the opening theme is a reversal of the progression used in Thelonious Monk’s ‘I Mean You’, and the dominant and tritone harmonies throughout reflect that influence – but the texture is drawn more from ’90s garage rock, only with a distorted piano instead of distorted guitars, as this song features no guitar whatsoever. The bridge features a subtle reprise of the album’s opening song. This is the only song where I didn’t give Tom a basic bass line to work with – just a piano part. I recorded three complete takes of the piano part for this song and then spliced the best parts of each together.

The wall of sound / sonic landscape production style used on Interior City is something I’ve always been drawn to – Strapping Young Lad’s ‘Alien‘ album is a great example. This song has a particularly high quotient of ambient noise behind all of the basic instrumental parts, including many speech samples. However, the chattering that runs through the background of Interior City does more than just add texture – it also serves a purpose in the story, highlighting and contributing to the character’s paranoia.

Travis’s notes: In “Subway Dwellers” — one of the few tunes on the album that possesses more of a pop sensibility — I’m playing some syncopated closed hat parts in the first verse (subtle crescendo beginning at 3:11 to provide a ‘lift’ into the pre-chorus), and a marching-esque part in the second, with light pedal splashing on the quarters. The two quick kicks and snare+china complement the vocal at 5:19. I sought to build the section starting at 6:02 by first playing my closed 13″ hats, then a ‘barking’ hat pattern before launching into a fun, colorful cymbal orchestration at 6:37.
On this song, I used my Pearl 4″x14″ maple piccolo snare.
Cymbals: 21″ DRK ride, 20″ MDM ride, 18″ & 19″ MDM medium crashes, 14″ MDM hi-hats, 8″ BRT splash, 13″ BRT/DRK hi-hats, 19″ LTD china (older model).

Full Drum Set Transcription
Tempo = 85 BPM

5. Retreat Underground

Here is Travis Orbin’s drum tracking video for Retreat Underground and Subway Dwellers:

Read the lyrics to ‘Retreat Underground’.

Gabriel’s Notes: I heard the first part of this little song in a dream I had in the summer of 2011, and the second half was drawn from an old progressive metal demo I had sitting around.  It’s meant to be both an intro to Subway Dwellers (and therefore includes a transformation of the opening melody of that song) and an introduction to some of the motives and musical themes which appear in the final song. The idea for a short and fast song leading into a slower and longer song with the same main theme came from the ‘Broken’ suite by Tears for Fears, and the idea to compress Subway’s more rhythmically dynamic theme into straight eighth notes for this song was drawn from the ending of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’.

Travis’s notes: “Retreat Underground” features a bit of melodic complementation during the transitional 5-4 bars and a hypnotic tom-tom part during the middle section. I launch into an exciting latin-esque groove in 3-4 at 1:43. The parts are further intensified with some double bass and loud crashing afterwards.
On this song, I used my ‘ol’ faithful’, my Reference brass snare.
Cymbals: 21″ DRK ride, 18″ & 19″ ICON medium crashes, 14″ MDM hi-hats, 8″ BRT splash, 13″ BRT/DRK hi-hats, 19″ LTD china (older model).

Full Drum Set Transcription
Tempo = 147 BPM

Tempo change (2:29) = ‘Linear decrease’ to 91 BPM until end

4. My Alien Father

Here is Travis Orbin’s drum tracking video for ‘My Alien Father’:

And here is Gabriel’s piano/keyboard tracking video for the song:

Read the lyrics to ‘My Alien Father’.

Gabriel’s Notes: This song is a tribute to my father, who is fascinated by alien conspiracy theories. The lyrics are drawn from his extensive library on the subject (and are used here to further express the paranoia of this story’s main character), and the music is inspired by sci-fi b-movie soundtracks – particularly that of the X-Files, one of my father’s favorite shows. As a result, it is the only song on the album to use prominent synths. Tom came up with a bass line for this one – a pattern in 9/8, reminiscent of Tool, which repeats twice in full then cuts itself off the third time. I went through multiple revisions of the drum part with Travis, and he ended up tracking it in a single take.

I cannot thank my father enough for making this album a reality. Without him, it would not exist.

Travis’s Notes: This is the tune that I alluded to in the “Fear of Humanity” video description; it was tracked entirely with the dual floor tom setup. In Gabe’s demo, the tom-toms and snare sounded quite big and ballsy, and I wanted to retain those textures/tones. The only discrepancy between the two setups are the 14″ MDM hats instead of 15″ MDMs.

And as always, there’s a bunch of complementation present:
2:10 – triplet on hats, piano
2:19 – 2:21 – hats orchestration, vocal melody
3:40 – 3:43 – crashes/china, vocal melody
3:56 – 3:57 – crashes/china/tom-toms, synth melody
4:09 – 4:10 – accented tom-tom quintuplet melody, synth melody
4:18 – 4:19 – double kick flams complement nothing; sometimes you just gotta play some double kick flams

Full drum set transcription
Tempo = 110 BPM

How I got my first album credit

album_coverIn Summer 2010, I interned at a studio in Philadelphia called Third Story Recording. It was run by Scott Herzog, a punk and hip-hop engineer who had recorded the early records by The Dead Kennedys. The studio basically recorded anyone who was willing to pay, so I ended up having to work on quite a few deeply unfortunate projects. As a result, the highlight of my day usually ended up being my work with Saving Thomas, a Korean Contemporary Christian group who combined folk rock and rapping. The group’s main songwriter was Dave Bak, a rapper, body percussionist, singer and rhythm guitarist. His songs were extremely religious in nature, but they were also very earnest and had a conviction to them which I found compelling – when Dave sang something, you could really tell he meant it. The band was being produced by their bassist, Bernard Chae, an incredibly talented individual who came up with some tasty bass lines and beautifully textured arrangements in addition to writing some music for the album. I ended up engineering quite a few of their sessions. Late one night when we were working on a song called ‘The Anatomy of Joy’, I told them I had some vocal layering ideas for the song (only minutes before I had to catch the train home). They hurriedly tracked me in the vocal booth – I threw a harmony idea at them which they rejected, then sang a contrasting line which they absolutely loved. Bernie ended up singing that part live, and every time he did it he looked like he was having the time of his life.

You can find the album at Saving Thomas’s Bandcamp page. Dave Bak has since released a followup solo album, ‘Voices’, which can be found at his Bandcamp page.

Soon after these sessions, Bernie quit his job as a lawyer and went to study music at Berklee. I originally asked him to perform the bass on Interior City, but he didn’t have time due to his studies.

I really enjoy the fact that my first two guest spots appeared on a Christian album and an Atheistic album (Being‘s upcoming debut, ‘Anthropocene’). This diversity of experiences has kept life rich!

3. Fear of Humanity

Here is Travis Orbin’s drum tracking video for ‘Fear of Humanity’:

Read the lyrics to ‘Fear of Humanity’.

Gabriel’s Notes: I think the opening of this was the first lyric written for the album. This is the album’s anthem, the main character’s manifesto… his entire worldview is described in this song.

The processed acoustic pianos which define much of the sound of ‘Interior City’ first appear at the start of this song. The opening chord progression is a six-chord sequence of parallel chords which increase in density throughout the song. They begin as four-note chords, expand into parallel diatonic clusters (featuring 6 of the 7 notes in the diatonic scale) in the second half, then become chromatic clusters where each note contains 10 out of the 12 chromatic tones in the 14-part violin chorale which ends the song. The ‘overtone chord’ voicing of this chorale is inspired by the way Messiaen frequently wrote extremely dissonant harmonies in his orchestral works but made them sound quite pleasing by placing the most dissonant notes in an extremely high register.

I originally wrote that 14-part violin chorale expecting that we wouldn’t get time to track it, but Sophia ended up breezing through all of her violin parts including the chorale in a day! I ended up devising new violin parts for Subway Dwellers and Defense Highway on the spot, replacing all of the string synth parts I had written with live violins – only the mellotron part in Ranting Prophet remains.

Tom added all sorts of cool embellishments to the bass lines in the second half of this song. The lead guitar tones and lines have a definite Failure influence… I even used the same Boss BF-2 flanger pedal they used to achieve the tones on their second album, ‘Magnified‘. Failure was probably the biggest rock influence on this album as a whole, and this is especially evident on Inner Sanctum.

Travis’s Notes: In Gabe’s original demo, the drums were super processed-sounding for the whole intro, but in my head I first heard them sounding gigantic and exaggerated. I opted to use two floor toms (my usual Reference Pure, along with a 16″x16″ Vision on my left) to express this, and further embellished the closed hat groove that follows — texturally — with my chunky 15″ MDM hats and an 8″x14″ Pearl maple snare (stock head).

Many months after tracking, Gabe kindly picked me up from the airport after my Drum Channel appearance, as he was in the middle of mixing the record at Oceanic and wasn’t far away. We were listening to a rough mix of the tune in the car and it was then that an idea/concept of how the second half of the intro could sound presented itself to me. I suggested a weird, crescendoing wall-of-noise affect into a roomy drum sound (2:38) and Gabe was into it. Killer!

When the song comes crashing back in after the brief break (3:30), the gear changes to my more commonly used brass Reference snare/rack tom. The cymbal setup is the same as in “Subway Dwellers”, although I used a ‘stack’ instead of a splash and an 18″ DRK flat ride on my right side.

There’s a ton of vocal complementation is this tune: 2:49, 3:09 (snare flams), 3:58 – 4:00 (cymbal melody), 4:10 – 4:12 (stack), 5:16 – 5:18 (stack), 5:18 – 5:22 (cymbal melody), 5:43 (stack), 6:28 – 6:30 (stack), 7:44 – 7:45 (cymbal melody). There’s also some tricky, syncopated fill-ins and a dual ride part at 6:38.

Full drum set transcription
Tempo = 95 BPM

2. Ranting Prophet

Here is Travis Orbin’s drum tracking video for ‘Ranting Prophet’:

And my piano tracking video:

Read the lyrics to ‘Ranting Prophet’.

Lyrics: The story’s main character observes that everyone surrounding him seems just as uncomfortable with their existence in this realm as he is. They all cope with being alive by engaging in various forms of escapism – television and other media, religion and other frequently dogmatic forms of belief, hedonism and substance abuse…
As he watches others, he realizes the futility of his own fight against being alive. He tells himself that he needs to bring acceptance into his life or he will make himself miserable and waste his energy, but can’t bring himself to act on this, as the negativity in his mind is too strong.

Music: The main idea in this song is a rejected harmonization of a motive from the first movement of my string quartet (Listen to more movements here). This particular more rock-oriented harmonization didn’t quite fit with the piece, so I made a rock song out of it. The motive only appears briefly in the quartet, but it is repeated relentlessly here.  It is paired with a tapping bass line written by Tom Murphy and a dual drum part. The left drum set is a 4/4 loop (a sampled ’80s Genesis drumbeat in my original demo, replaced by live drums in studio) which keeps running in 4/4 even when the song changes time signatures in the bridge. The idea of having two drum sets play polymetrically against each other is something that King Crimson explored in some of their dual-drum lineups, but it’s an idea which has been woefully underused in my opinion. The polymetric bridge is followed by a reprise of the piano/vocal opening, this time in a full band arrangement, accompanied by tremolo picked guitars and blastbeats (techniques drawn from extreme metal).

The instrumental interlude following the first verse is a direct quotation of an idea Messiaen used in used in quite a few of his early works (and in one late work). Messiaen detested music with a constant pulse, but I have accompanied the quotation with a jazzy rhythm section playing a clear constant pulse, making the quotation rather sacrilegious.

My vocal approach through much of this song was largely inspired by Trent Reznor. The vocal embellishments at the full band entrance were inspired by traditional arabic music, and they are immediately followed by a section in which the guitar, saxophone, and violin all solo at once (simultaneous solos were common early big band jazz and in the music of Charles Mingus). The violin solo in this group, written and performed by Sophia Uddin, quotes the first movement of Bartók’s sixth string quartet. She plays a much longer violin solo to end the song, in which she quotes the second movement of Bartók’s second string quartet. You can hear a collaborative piece that Sophia and I wrote together here.

Piano video: I apologize that I look so serious and stoic throughout this video – I started out doing more energetic takes, but ended up getting more focused as I went along. The picture-in-picture bits weren’t actually used on the album – I recorded them as guide tracks for the guitar and violin. The line I’m playing in the first PIP continues to run while the second one is playing, but unfortunately there’s no way to make two PIPs play simultaneously in iMovie. My sister sat in for this session, and you can see her sitting in the control room.

Travis’s notes: There’s a drum loop that runs throughout most of this tune that I tracked, but – regrettably – did not film (I included it in the first bar of the transcription). In Gabe’s original demo, the loop was lifted/sampled from a Genesis tune and I stuck pretty close to it. However, I wanted to retain a hand-to-hand hi-hat feel with tom-toms and other cymbal orchestrations poking through here and there, and what came out of me is what you see. My feet are playing a single stroke ostinato underneath, with the right foot moving back and forth between the right-side pedal hat and the bass drum. The ostinato dictated not only where within the bar but also which set of hats I choked.

In the section starting around 1:54, I employed some softer dynamics. There’s a cool over-the-bar polyrhythm at 2:07, then each subsequent ride strike is louder to segue back into the verse. At 2:45, the loop stays in 4-4 while the tune shifts between 7 and 6. The delayed snare backbeat at 3:08 complements the vocal. For the crazy blast-beat-driven bridge, I sought to punctuate it in spots; it usually starts at the tail end of the four-bar progression then bleeds into its repeat. There’s a two-bar tag at the end in which I play a ‘bomb blast’ in the first bar; I came up with the idea while tracking. Thankfully, my feet were cooperative that day haha.

Full drum set transcription
Tempo = 109 BPM

Other appearances: This song appeared on the compilation CD for Zero Tolerance Issue #54 along with a review of the album. Their master of the song can be heard and downloaded below: