Hello! My name is Tom Slatter and I write the sort of music you'd get if Genesis started writing songs with Nick Cave after watching too much Dr Who. If you enjoy it you can sign up for more by entering your email address below.
This is the latest edition of my email newsletter. Except if you’re not on the mailing list you don’t have the password to the fanpage. Wahahahaha! (You can get it. Just click on the link and do what it says).
So last month you learned that I am now a Bad Elephant. Over the next couple you’ll learn more about the new album as we release various bits and bobs, building up to the release date.
Nothing’s being made public until the beginning of April, but I thought I’d put some stuff up on the fan page for mailing list subscribers, so click here for the fan page and use the password [redacted] to hear and see some stuff about the new album.
The fourth track from the Miser’s Will, a song cycle from my album Ironbark.
What’s it about?
In the previous songs we heard about the acquisition of some metal claws, a brain in a jar and a twisted metal skeleton. Now it is time to assemble them…
What’s going on musically?
This is in E lydian, a lovely major mode with a raised fourth which gives it a delicious, off kilter feel. The chorus chords are similar to the chorus the the first track and the bridge is inspired by the previous song.
Here’s the third song from my Song Cycle The Miser’s Will
Watermen’s square was inspired by the building of the same name near where I used to live in Penge, south London.
What’s it about?
Some watermen on the Thames, dredging up a misshaped iron skeleton, dragging it back to the titular square to examine it, only to have the black-clad executor of the will turn up and claim it. Which scares them a bit, cos they hadn’t told anyone they’d found it.
What’s going on musically?
It’s all arpeggios and getting confused between major and minor. I often find it useful to state something in the minor, then directly contradict that with the major version.
I also like the percussion in this. It’s all weird clanking samples and boxes being hit rather than real drums. And the synth stuff is pretty too.
One of my best songs this, even if I do say so myself.
A hospital orderly witnesses a Doctor cutting a brain out of a corpse, then trying to double cross the man who paid him to do it.
What’s going on musically?
All the songs in the Miser’s Will connect musically. In this case the main riff is a much elongated version of the chord changes from one line (Follow follow said the letter) from the previous song, taken down a fourth.
I’m really proud of the guitar part on this song, and the fact that I had the courage to go minimal and build up slowly. Always goes down well live too. Everyone likes a song about a brain in a jar.
I’ve decided to have a go at making some youtube videos. My first project is a set of lyric videos for the Miser’s Will, a song cycle I wrote for my album Ironbark.
The Cartographer’s Tale
What’s the story?
This story is from the point of view of a cartographer who is sent a map, one he drew. But this map has marks on it that lead him to buried ‘treasure’: brass and gold claws buried in the earth. The letter that accompanied the map tells him to dig these up and take them into town. He does this, and is met by the executor of the titular will…
What’s going on musically?
The time changes are a bit silly, there are parts in 4, 7, 5 and 6 and the key changes are interesting as well. Its trying to do what many of my songs do and have sing-along vocal hooks and silly prog stuff in the same song. I want to write music that makes people who like a tune happy, and still entertain nerdy muso types. I think this achieves it.
It’s really interesting listening back to this. While I’ve played it live several times I haven’t really listened to the recording for a couple of years. It’s slower than I remembered and I’d totally forgotten about the synth melody.
At the command of my Evil Record Label Boss, I have written about a 4th Bad Elephant track:
Now this is interesting. A 20 minute song cycle that uses the harmonic and lyrical stylings of your English songwriters like a Paul Weller and Ray Davies.
Hunt’s website describes his work as ‘Quintessentially English’, and there’s plenty in the music to back this up. He handily has a list of his favourite albums on his site which includes (amongst many eclectic things) The Who, Paul Weller, Oasis, The Beatles and Supergrass, all of whose influence can be heard here. The track even starts with a quote from Michael Caine in Alfie and references tea, road-works, fags and fog all sung in a London accent. It tells us a tale of urban romance, love loss, freedom and ‘bus stops in the rain’. Can you get more English than that?
Harmonically the track also chimes with that English style of songwriting. In particular the opening section, Alfie and the closing Windswept both make use of chord progressions in the Mixolydian mode. Alfie has an ascending pattern of arpeggios based around A7, and Windswept has chords based around D, Am C. That bluesy seventh chord as home and movement from the major tonic to flat 7 chord is right out of the Who, Beatlesy playbook and the sliding open string chords are exactly what you’d expect from someone who lists Nick Drake’s Pink Moon as a favourite album.
This is really interesting because prog tends to eschew blues harmony. Not all of it granted, but plenty of the early prog stuff was trying to be European and avoid blues-rock based stuff, whereas those English singer-songwriters and rock bands never denied the influence. So there are plenty of ingredients in Making Tea… that just aren’t prog at all.
So why’s it on a prog(ish) record label?
Well, a. because it’s good and Bad Elephant is as much an exercise in art as it is in commerce (at least that’s their excuse for not making any money) and b. because it’s 20 minutes long. What could be more prog?
How do you make a song work over 20 minutes?
There’s more than one way to skin that over-large moggy. Hunt has chosen to approach it by tying together a medley, or song cycle. So Making Tea is Freedom is split into 6 sections, two of them instrumental and all of them capable of standing on their own. Aside from a recapitulation of material from Alfie at the start of Windswept each song uses new ideas to further the musical journey.
How do you keep things interesting?
Key changes, instrumentation and paying close attention to energy levels, that’s how. Jon takes care to have energy build over time, so that while we start off with just guitar and vocal, by about ten minutes in drums and bass have joined in and things are getting genuinely rocky.
The first rocky climax gives way to the instrumental, synthy calm of ‘Me’ before acoustic guitars take us back to drums and electric guitars in the mid-paced denouement.
This is good, refreshing, different.
I’ve written about 4 Bad Elephant tracks now, and they’re all different. There is one similarity that I think is common to many proggish songs, and perhaps distinguishes prog structures from pop songs. All of them have, towards the end, had noisey up-tempo passages, followed by calm that moves to a final, mid paced ‘singalong’ melodic coda.
All of them have been pretty modal in harmony too, which is what you’d expect, and all have involved changes in key and/or time signature and generally a bigger artistic pallette than you’d expect from non-proggish musicians.
The Evil Label Boss has commanded, and so i obey. Here’s my third nerdy musician write up for a Bad Elephant track.
Home Sweet Home by We Are Kin is a very nice song, shockingly short for something on a ‘prog’ label as it clocks in at the frankly silly time of 3 minutes twenty seven seconds.
Thematically, I don’t think it’s a million miles away from the 13 minute prog monster that I started this blog series with, The Willows by the Gift. Both of them have at their heart a yearning for home, simplicity and freedom, and both seem to associate a major key sweetness with that feeling.
Mike Morton was singing about laying down underneath the willows, whereas here Hannah Cotterill is singing about images of home, villages, community, cities hard at work.
This is your 3 minute song form so of course it doesn’t have the extended instrumental contrasts the Willows had. Nevertheless there’s a nice contrast here. And whereas in a pop song you might expect the main vocal pay off to happen early and often, here you still have to wait to hear it. This is a song you listen to all the way through, not a ten-seconds-is-enough flash in the pan pop song.
So what’s going on?
We start with the main chord sequence in D Mixolydian, Under some arpeggios a bassline moves from D to B to C then F# to G and back to D. It’s in 4/4 but the progression lasts 3 bars with lots of the movement off the beat. What’s the effect of that? It makes us feel pleasantly off-kilter, and slightly dreamy. Throughout this song the modal harmony and the fact that the bass is often melodic and not just playing root notes means we often get a feeling that the harmony isn’t quite resolved, adding to the dreamy quality. There are light keys in this first verse, guitar arpeggios and drums.
Verse 2 and 3
A couple of straighter bars of E minor and C and then we get verse 2, adding bass and piano marking out the same bassline. E minor and C again and then we get an instrumental refrain that’s a little bit more rocky and in D minor, giving us a bit of harmonic contrast. Verse 3 repeats material from verse 2 but with a some vocal harmonies and few little extra textural gestures.
Home Sweet Home!
We then get the D minor refrain which gives way to trebley chugging guitar and some vocal ‘ah’s and some nice piano melodic lines. The bass joins in with a section that builds up in 3/4 under the line ‘seek and you shall find, the key to free your mind’ before we repeat the opening chords, much louder and with the drums spelling out the chord changes rather than playing a beat for the pay-off line of ‘home sweet home, home sweet home’.
I really like the mood here, and its interesting that so far in all three of these songs the instrumentalists aren’t going for the virtuoso look-at-me solos. What’s up with all the understatement and tasteful accompaniments guys? I thought Bad Elephant was a prog label!
My Evil Label Boss suggested Scuttle by noisey prog-rock bastards Trojan Horse for my next nerdy muso write up. Who am I to disobey? I’ve seen Trojan Horse live twice, and they’re bloody good so they are.
What’s similar between The Willows and Scuttle? They’re both a kind of rock, they both sound like a band rather than soloists with backing, neither stick to the pop song formula and unsurprisingly there are elements of your 70s prog rock in places, though I think less so in the ‘orse.
What are the differences? One is the choice of timbres. Even though the instrumentation is basically the same, The Gift present their sounds in a pretty clean way. Every instrument can be heard distinctly. Trojan Horse sound like a band driving the metres into the red. Loud and distorted, echoey and gooey and rich. The studio isn’t just there to record, it’s there to help create the sound.
The other difference is harmonic. The chord choices in The Willows were out of the popular song play book and movement of fourths and fifths was common. The changes in key were likewise, G and C being the tonic notes. Scuttle is a whole different kettle of ball games in this regard. After the intro section in D minor it’s mostly in B minor. The chord choices tend to be a third apart, and the bass isn’t always playing root notes. What’s more there’s lots of use of that lovely sharp fourth in the lead-in to both iterations of the A section. At the end of the intro you get it in the D diminished chord, at the end of the B section we get movement between F# and F.
What effect does that have? It’s less certain. As you’d expect from a song called ‘scuttle’ a lot of this is uneasy. It’s introspective, close, insects-in-your-speakers stuff, not sing-along soaring choruses like the Gift deliver.
The other difference is simply the amount of rock. Trojan Horse are a more raucous affair than The Gift.
Here’s the low down:
Section: Intro Key: D minor with diminished bits What’s going on? Intro chords from the guitar lead to noise with a d diminished flavour. This is all about the bass riff, as much of the song is.
Section: A Key: B minor ish but there’s a modal quality to it and the F# sometimes feels like the tonic. What’s going on?: It’s still all about the bass! A simple three note bass riff takes us around the notes of a B minor triad with a dead simple but catchy vocal. keys melody. Some arpeggios join in, before it all gives way to a big riff that’s all chromatic but centred on movement from E to C# – another movement of a third, incidentally.
Section: B Key: E Minor What’s going on? This bit’s got more than a hint of dub reggae about it. It’s all psychedelic echo effects, twisty, mucked about drums and again a great bass riff. We then get some harmonised vox and a beat to go with the bass riffing. Once again the guitars and keys are marking out little melodies and little bits of gestural material, and then everyone joins in for a riff centred on B. Before breaking into a great F# Minor/Fminor riff that reminds me a little of The Specials (I am completely ignorant of dub, reggae and similar so I assume there’s more that could be said about that here by someone more knowledgeable that me). A tiny hint of the intro gives way to the next sections.
Section: A* What’s going on?: Here we recapitulate the material from section A, in a louder, more busy form. As with the Gift, vocals give way to similar melody from the guitar and a big (though not quite sing-along) ending, before everything goes massive with the repeat of that chromatic E based riff.
So as I’m working with Bad Elephant, I thought I’d amuse myself by having a proper listen to some of their artist’s work with my ‘nerdy muso’ hat on. #iamanerdymuso
The Willows – The Gift.
The Willows is the opening track from The Gift’sLand of Shadows‘. Its progressive rock that clearly owes a debt to the 70s stuff – I can hear echoes of Genesis and early Marillion here – but it’s also dramatic in an almost musical theatre fashion. In fact I found myself thinking about the opening track from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars album 5 years. Both tracks give us a smorgasbord of lyrical images and an apocalyptic the-modern-world-is-dying attitude. Both make disapproving reference to (at the time) modern technologies, whether irons or TVs or youtube. Both songs also make use of rock music elements – drum beats, electric guitars and so on – without being straight up rock tracks. They’re both about drama, theatre, story telling with rock music as a means to that end.
I wouldn’t want to push that comparison too far however. The Willows is a progressive rock track and has a little more to it than the Bowie track.
The opening section is all about Mike Morton’s baritone. The keyboards and guitars mark out some chords in G major with tasteful understatement, the drums join in to mark out the ‘marching band’, but everything here is about the vocal. Scenes of myth and fairytale gone wrong – Rapunzel letting her virtue down, Magdalene with blood on her gown – are contrasted with scenes of modern life. We’ve lost out way, ‘weatherbound in our dormitory towns’ and Mr Morton lets us know in the most melodic fashion over descending G major chords.
And the chord choices are worth mentioning here, because they spell out the simplicity that the lyrics yearn for. There are actual IV V I transitions here, almost pastoral cadences the belie the despair of this opening elegy. Throughout the track the choice of key is clearly not random, instead following the narrative through the elegy to the darker middle section and the final major key redemption of the ending refrain.
Feast of Fools
A flurry of electronics and distortion leads to a lovely descending G minor riff over a G pedal note and then we’re off. The Feast of Fools gives us Sinewy guitars, synths and driving bass over a proper rock beat showing exactly what the rest of the band can do. Which is rock.
Except, they do it in a way a straight rock band wouldn’t. The band stops for gestural moments like a short guitar passage that breaks up the beat. They change frequently from full to half time and give us extended passages from guitar and synth. It’s a middle section that gives us drama and impressive solo work, but never the abandon or showiness that you’d expect from a hard rock or metal band.
A build up under a spoken word section leads to the most strat-ahead rocky section at the end of the feast. Here were also find some of the best vocal moments of the track, mocking us for putting ‘your heartache on youtube’ as we’re damned for our modern conceits. Here it’s Icarus staring at the moon in his navel and Lazarus tempting us back to the comforting cold at the climax.
‘Let us go then’
A calmer passage then takes us through some arpeggios to a recap of the mood from the opening section. Now we’re in C and spoken words from a child take us finally to the innocence and simplicity that the lyrics have been yearning for. A sing-along refrain that deserves a concert hall full of people joining in leads to a melodic guitar solo. In this final section Morton’s hoping to lie amongst the willows, natural imagery replacing the trappings of modern life he clearly disdains.
The emptiness of modernity contrasted with a more natural, purer life is a theme that’s turned up in fiction plenty of times, but here we have it in musical form. The lyrics tell us the story, but unlike that Bowie track, there’s redemption rather than a five year wait for the end. And unlike the Bowie track, we’ve been on a harmonic journey. We started in G, then moved to Gminor then finally ended in C major. Do you get a more simple key than C? It’s like the whole track is an extended cadence, bringing us back home to the willows to ‘wait for miracles again’.
So that’s what I thought listening to The Willows. I rather like it.