Ending the Guitar Tone Obsession

Do we guitarists obsess too much about tone? I’ve realised I certainly do. If I look back to the first 15 or so years of playing the instrument tone was the last thing I thought about. The gear I had was just what I can afford and I did the best I could with it. But thanks to the internet we can now all learn about the gear we don’t have, and how the gear we do have isn’t any good, despite it being perfectly fine beforehand.

I’ve owned plenty of guitar amps but only two during the first 20 years as a musician. This is partly because I went a long time between uni and a decade and a half later not playing live and mostly recording via a computer. The other reason being I didn’t see the need for a different amp. Only in recent times – perhaps with various forums and others to blame – that I’ve bought and sold so much gear.

My first amp when I was 17 was really my Philips boombox, a friend had showed me how you could get a cable from Tandy that would go from my guitar to the line-in connections of the stereo. If you turned it up loud it distorted too. Though my family weren’t too impressed with that as I stumbled through Whole Lotta Love.

Within a year I had a small Squier solid state combo. This was supposed to be a small practice amp but it had two volume settings – off and too loud. But I then bought a bigger amp from a mate of mine who’d gigged it around his six form. It was a Hohner Marlin 50C. It was a solid state combo with two channels (or at least a clean and drive setting), chorus and reverb. I knew nothing about hear back then so I never did use the effects loop – wasn’t sure what it did – though it would have been very handy at the time. And never realised I could have bought a very cheap footswitch to help me switch between clean and dirt – I used to run back to the amp and press a little button, same for the chorus and reverb. But I still have very fond memories of the amp.

It was the amp I was stood on playing Purple’s Black Night at full volume in our halls of residence one night for a sing along with friends when the porter gave me a bollocking. It was an extra seat in my uni room. It also occasionally served as a table for my kettle and coffee stuff. I used it a lot live at uni – including quite regularly at the Christian Union (don’t ask – I’m trying to forget them) where teaming up with a noisy drummer of like mind we completely Van Halened it all up contrary to the leadership’s wishes. It’s the amp that I used my forgotten school electronics skills on to replace knackered pots. And sadly it’s the amp that was falling apart when I threw it away when I was in my early thirties and moving down to that London from Manchester.

So not a classic amp in any terms. But I remember it doing the job, back then I was more interested in playing and impressing girls than “tone”. I don’t think I ever even thought about “tone” back then. My guitar gear amounted to an Epiphone 435i superstrat, Korg G3, Jim Dunlop Wah and the Marlin 50C. And that was all the gear I had for a decade. And it did the job.

Since then my gear list of shame has grown long. I’ve bought and sold all kinds of kit, partly because I like new toys, partly because I was chasing a tone that existed only in my head. Even with the right gear I would obsess over the settings endlessly. The temptation to fiddle is always there – especially with digital modelling devices. How many of us can say we’ve played through a POD for an hour without tinkering with the sound?

Well I’ve had enough of all that. Enough of seeing the vacuum tube as the holy grail. Enough of caring what other people thought of the gear I had, rather than what I thought. I’ve just spent an hour playing guitar. I had my POD HD500 running into the power amp return of my Laney Ironheart head. With the POD set to Stack Power Amp I selected the Plexi model, didn’t touch gain or EQ at all, added a reverb and then just spent an hour jamming. I didn’t even switch off the cab or mic modelling, I just played. I didn’t second guess what other people might have set it to.

By the end of the hour I thought it sounded amazing. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But what I didn’t do was worry about it. I just played with what I had. And the honest truth is I’ve not enjoyed playing guitar so much in ages.

Bruce Soord – Wisdom of Crowds Review

We have to listen to plenty of rubbish music here at Grumpyrocker. But sometimes we’re sent something so wonderful to review it makes life worth living. Bruce Soord’s collaboration with Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse is such a record.

The resulting album – Wisdom of Crowds – is a real treat for fans of progressive music. In some ways it’s the album I expected from Steven Wilson/Michael Akerfeldt’s Storm Corrosion collaboration. Instead that duo gave us something much more odd – but no less compelling. But I digress…

No, what we have here from Bruce isn’t an album that strays too far from his day job of The Pineapple Thief. Soord plays all the instruments – delivering a delightful blend of modern progressive rock, folk, pop, electronica and industrial. Fans of The Pineapple Thief would feel right at home, as would fans of Pink Floyd, Marillion, Anathema, The Gathering, The Porcupine Tree or even Muse.

What sets this album apart is the choice of vocalist. Don’t get me wrong – regular readers will know what a big fan I am of Katatonia’s work – but I wouldn’t have pegged Jonas Renkse as the ideal vocalist for such an album. I would be wrong though. Even shorn of the numerous ethereal effects he enjoy’s on Katatonia’s records Jonas sounds phenomenal on Wisdom of Crowds. He lends the whole album an air of melancholy. Bruce Soord wrote the album with Jonas in mind and it tells, it’s not often you here something that sounds so right. Even though here’s nothing approaching metal to be heard on the album Jonas sounds just perfect for the role.

So no metal riffing, but there are some very pleasing noisy guitar moments – particularly in the powerful second half of Frozen North, one of my favourite tracks from the album. There’s plenty of instrumental moments to enjoy; soulful soloing, interesting sound effects, powerful electronica beats and epic soundscapes.

Just as impressive as the bombast is Bruce Soord’s restraint. Here we have nine songs of modest length for progressive rock, with only two tracks just slipping over seven minutes. Other bands may have been tempted to record their ripoff of homage to Echoes, but there’s nothing so indulgent here. Instead it’s genuinely beautiful music married with perfect emotive vocals.

I’ll shut up now. Just go buy Bruce Soord and Jonas Renkse’s Wisdom of Crowds, a major candidate for album of the year. Take a listen…

Review catchup Darkthrone, Odessa, Sons of Aeon, Hanging Garden, The Omega Experiment, Hatchet, Wolvespirit

You’ve heard all the excuses. All my kids got sick – one at a time – then I caught the lurgy. A few weeks of sinusitis where I was practically deaf, followed then by a week of (real) flu, then a holiday in Wales – has led to something of a backlog (and a convoluted sentence). I’m back now though and raring to go.

Time to face the backlog, some of which I’d heard before all the drama above, some I’ve just had a chance of listening to. But finally I get to tell you what I think of these records that have been piling up here. So without further ado, let’s have at it.

Darkthrone – The Underground Resistance
The duo of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto return for another batch of crusty old metal and punk, though the focus is much more on metal for this Darkthrone outing. There’s plenty of variety – from the pure cheese of power metal to much harder deathly offerings. While not the band’s best work there are plenty of moments to enjoy – particularly if you take the view that the Norwegian duo are actually taking the piss, of which there is plenty of evidence on the record.

Odessa – Carry the Weight
It’s metalcore, so obviously not really going to win many friends around these parts. But as metalcore goes it’s competent stuff. Some of Odessa’s riffing is pretty good, though the the bits where the poppy clean vocals come in make me want to hit the band over the head with a breeze-block with the word “cliche” painted on it. Probably a great record if you’re 13.

Sons of Aeon – Sons of Aeon
I should really like this album. After all Sons of Aeon guitarist Wille Naukkarinen name-checks bands such as Entombed, Cathedral, At the Gates and Carcass as influences. But this slab of death metal doesn’t quite work for me. I’m not sure why. There are great riffs aplenty, crunching vocals and drums that sound like they were played by a human. Yet I wasn’t gripped. I enjoyed every minute of listening to this album, but then never felt the need to listen to it again. Sadly. Fabulous album cover though – I’m a sucker for good photos of lighthouses. Anyway, I’ll probably give it another go, so perhaps you should too.

Hanging Garden – At Every Door
Now here we have a great record. Gothic doom merchants Hanging Garden return with a new album that evokes the eighties in a way that Sirenia used to (before they became complete toss). The Mission, Fields of the Nephilim and Sisters of Mercy fans can ditch those smiles and return to evocative, miserable gothic rock that makes you want to paint your bedroom black and kick a Bros fan. All joking aside this is a great album and one for fans of bleaker (though not necessarily heavier) metal, even Paradise Lost fans will find plenty to enjoy here too. One of the better releases I’ve heard recently, go buy it.

The Omega Experiment – The Omega Experiment
And now some progressive rock. Which version? Well the version that means the music is all twiddly. not the version that means this is music that progresses the genre. Clear? Well it’s okay I suppose. Some of the best bits evoke Kevin Moore-era Dream Theater, though it’s a much more ethereal album than those progressive metallers ever put out. The Omega Experiment is competent enough but it has too much of a wiff of a bedroom project about it. And for an album that is so heavily focussed on vocals, the vocals aren’t actually that great. But then you could say the same about Dream Theater. Perhaps this is a record for DT fans missing the band’s early sound, but then you could just listen to Images & Words again. The Omega Experiment is okay, er and that’s it.

Hatchet – Dawn of the End
I’m not sure if Hatchet are sincere or taking the piss, but whatever the case this is a fabulously indulgent homage to eighties Bay Area thrash. Actually that’s too broad. Let’s be clear, this is Hatchet pretending to be 1985 Metallica. There’s nothing subtle about the impersonation, though there are a couple of mistakes – the lead guitarist is actually too good to be Kirk Hammett, and the vocalist is trying way too hard to sound like a drunk James Hetfield. That aside I enjoyed the hell out of this record thanks to some fabulous riffing. If you’re a lover of chunky rhythmic guitar playing then buy this album right now. There is a really horrible misstep at one point when Hatchet think they can get away with ripping off Creeping Death – this really doesn’t work at all well – but otherwise this is a solid, fun, rocking album for fat old metal fans who miss the Metallica that wrote good songs (or lets be honest, had any Dave Mustaine material left to pilfer).

Wolvespirit – Dreamcatcher
Have you ever wondered what a decidedly average Deep Purple covers band would sound like if they had a female Biff Byford impersonator on vocals? Well wait no longer, Germany’s Wolvespirit are here to make your dreams come true. Shite.

Omnium Gatherum – Beyond Review

Only February and already the competition for album of the year is already in full swing. Harry has the great pleasure in reviewing the new Omnium Gatherum album Beyond.
Here we are so early in 2013 and already we have what will likely be the best heavy metal album released this year. It was on their fourth album – The Red Shift – where Omnium Gatherum began to break free of their influences and define their own sound. The follow-up – New World Shadows – took that a step further.

New World Shadows was a great album that really showcased the band’s progression but sometimes lacked momentum and cohesion. Don’t get me wrong, New World Shadows was fantastic, but Beyond is even better. The riffs are stronger and more memorable this time around and each song feels like a finished piece of work rather than a collection of brilliant ideas not quite gelling perfectly.

Jukka Pelkonen’s vocal performance is phenomenal. So many death metal vocalists nail aggression, but few manage the pathos and sadness that Jukka achieves. And while on Brave New Shadows the vocals didn’t always fit mood of the song here on Beyond there’s no such problem.

Meanwhile the performances by the rest of the band are just as strong. It’s wonderful in this age of drum replacement and invisible subsonic bass to hear a metal band play with a proper rhythm section. The bass is upfront and present in the mix, defining movement, offering melodies – rather than a subsonic afterthought echoing the guitars. The drumming is equally strong and there’s fabulous atmospheric keyboard work by Aapo Koivisto too.

Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (the best heavy metal album ever recorded) achieved something unique in that Dave Murray and Adrian Smith’s guitar solos felt less like solos and more like integral parts of the song storytelling, the logical step in the progress of the song and the conduit to the rest of the track. These were important melodic statements, not mere breaks for the singer while the guitarists show off.

And here on Beyond this all too rare feat of guitar storytelling is achieved by Markus Vanhala and Joonas Koto. Kudos to the duo for tempering flash guitar pyrotechnics with more thoughtful and memorable melodies. It’s a pleasure to hear this beautifully melodic guitar playing on a modern metal album.

And a modern record it is. Beyond boasts a shimmering production that allows every member of the band a chance to shine. I keep saying beautiful, a strange description of heavy metal you might think, but Beyond is genuinely a collection of beautiful melodic songs. The word progressive may get bandied about but Beyond is not really a “prog” record in the modern sense, there are no twiddly meanderings from the beaten path. It is progressive music in the true sense of a band striving to exceed their previous endeavours and create something new – yet most of the songs are relatively simple in structure, deriving their emotion, beauty and brutality from the power of the song-writing, performance and musicianship.

Opening track LuoTo introduces melodic themes that we return to in album’s closer White Palace. Between them we get straight ahead rock tracks like The Unknowing and baroque influenced stomps such as In the Rim. There are catchy tracks like The Sonic Sign, and crushing brooding heavy songs like Nightwalkers. Who Can Say begins as an ethereal track with clean vocals and builds into something very powerful. And White Palace – the final track – gives us ten minutes of perfection that sums up the hard work on the rest of the record. This is an extremely good heavy metal album, and as fine a musical statement as a band could make.

If you love heavy metal you must buy this record.

Omnium Gatherum’s Beyond will be released on February 22nd in Finland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland; February 25th in rest of the Europe and March 5th in North-America via Lifeforce Records.

Cult of Luna – Vertikal Review

Is it post-rock or is it heavy metal? When is a carrot not a carrot? Is the new Cult of Luna album any good. Grumpyrocker Editor Harry answers at least one of these questions. Hopefully not just the one about the carrot.

It’s not really metal, I’ve seen written. It features many of the tropes of metal, but it isn’t metal. But if Cult of Luna’s epic – yes epic – new album Vertikal is not metal then Black Sabbath isn’t metal, and that means there never has been any metal. Suddenly the carrot isn’t a carrot and nothing makes sense.

Sorry. I have a banging headache. Coherence isn’t my strong point this morning. Can we start again? Wait a moment while I find some paracetamol.

Taking direct inspiration from sequences within Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis, Cult of Luna’s Vertikal offers the sprawling, beautiful, haunting soundscape of a dystopian future.

Not that you have to be familiar with Lang’s film to fully appreciate Cult of Luna’s achievement here. The brooding science fiction soundtrack – from moments so minimalistic that we have barely a sound to others of crushing doom riffing and screamed vocals – is an emotional journey of itself.

The synth work often recalls Vangelis’ wonderful Blade Runner soundtrack. But it’s the rhythm section that takes things to the next level. The importance of bass guitar in post-rock/metal can’t be underestimated and the low end rumble’s integration with the percussion gives Vertikal its momentum, preventing the the slower sequences from stopping any progress.

Joined by powerful guitar riffage and those very metal vocals we have an album that at times is quietly beautiful if unsettling and in parts throbbing with classic metal guitar. Cult of Luna’s great achievement in Vertikal is bringing all this work together into a cohesive whole.

The twin punch of I: The Weapon and Vicarious Redemption is one of the finest double acts you’ll find on a modern album. But the album is strong across the board. Like many ambient post-rock/metal albums you’ll find nods to the giants of the genre – Pink Floyd. But Vertikal isn’t a softly softly album, it retains that power and that anger you might expect from Roger Water’s finest moments, not the sleepier elegiac passages of Gilmour/Wright collaborations. Anger isn’t the only emotion featured within. The often brutal picture of the future painted by Vertikal is brought to a more human and emotional end by the final track Passing Through. A fine end to an excellent album.

2013 is already shaping up to be an excellent one for fans of progressive music. Cult of Luna has set the bar very high with Vertikal. The first essential album of the year.