Category Archives: Writing

Breaking Panera Bread with Evan Craig of Dirge Electronics

Dirge Edit
In my 33 years on this planet, I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than an hour at a time in a Panera Bread. Yet here I am, two hours in and hoping that my time here will soon come to an end.

It’s grey and cold outside; the bitter Pennsylvania winter greeted me the minute I stepped off the plane two weeks ago, and since then I’ve come to the startling realization that, no matter how well I think I’ve packed, I never seem to bring enough cold weather clothing. I am freezing, and I am ashamed.

On this particular day––this particularly cold day––I’m meeting my friend Evan Craig of Dirge Electronics, a guy who’s creating pedals that grind, quake, rattle and break amps, which is a fitting description of any clever device that calls itself Dirge.

He arrives about an hour later, apologizing profusely, and by this time I have inside jokes with each of the Panera staff. We’d grown close in those three hours; I’ve walked with them through life, watched as their kids left for college, cried with them at the loss of a family member, and attended four bar mitzvahs and two birthday parties. That’s grossly hyperbolic, but a cashier noted that I had been there a long time and I winked and told her, “I didn’t have a beard when I came in here.” Nailed it.

Thing is, Evan’s tardiness is neither true tardiness nor his fault; when we made plans earlier in the week, he was up-front about the nature of his job––Evan’s day job is selling doors to home improvement retailers––and that he often has to stay longer at a particular store location to train employees on the features and installation of said doors. I knew this going in, and for some reason, I thought, “I’ll just show up early” as if I were known for punctuality. What the hell. So really, it’s my fault for sitting there for so long, but that’s neither here nor there.

After Evan collected himself and had a sandwich, we breezed through the usual smalltalk rather quickly. It was going well, his day was meh, family’s good, etc., etc. It took little time for us to get acquainted, and soon we’d touched on guitar companies we like, bands we would die for, and most importantly, how Evan got into the pedal biz.

IMG_0013Before circuit bending and pedal vending, Evan (aka Skullservant on Instagram and other forums) began his career by listening first, homing in on the sounds he found compelling. Around the age of 13, Evan discovered Noise, a genre with the most appropriate designation ever. He cites Merzbow as a huge influence, speaking with exuberance about the impact of those sounds on his young mind. “I’m still trying to collect all of the Merzbow records, even though it’s impossible. He has, like, 300 of them out there.”

But it was his first rig, a Dean Vendetta guitar and a Digitech Death Metal pedal, that got him curious about creating his own sounds. He messed around with circuit bending, starting with toys, and soon did the same to his pedal, creating weirdness any way he could. Eventually, Evan found he had the knack for bending, and began acquiring loose boards to aid in his experiments.

“When I started, I would get circuit boards from places and just modify the hell out of them, just add as much stuff as I could cause it helped me learn. I got the basic circuit down, now here’s how I can expand it.”

And that’s what makes him attractive to so many players: expansion. Evan doesn’t shy away from requests, and any opportunity to twist a familiar design to fit his idea of the perfect sound is one he’ll gladly accept. His first commissions came from the I Love Fuzz community, where Evan would post his latest builds. Interest quickly built up around his work, and forum members started asking for specific builds based on what more traditional circuits were missing.

In short order, Evan’s brilliant little boxes began finding happy homes on the boards of some well-known musicians, such as Weezer’s Scott Shriner. Shriner owns Evan’s Dirge Dweller, which is based on the Mad Bean Cave Dweller delay project but with that special Dirge twist. Evan explains:

“One of the limitations of that circuit is the headroom––that’s the limitation of the pt2399 chip in general––so it clips kind of easily. That circuit’s… kind of dark and ambient, which I dig, but I refined it to be a little more bright. It doesn’t have a normal blend control, so I’ve been adding one and a clean boost… You can drive your amp with this delay.”

Evan originally made his ideal Dirge Dweller for himself, with every expansion he could think of crammed into the enclosure. But when the bassist of one of the biggest bands out there comes around, you definitely don’t want to make him wait. “Scott was like, ‘I want you to build me one’ after I had just finished that one. So I was like, have mine. He likes it a lot.”

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One of Dirge’s three-in-one pedals, with RAT, Boost, and Comp pedals in one convenient design.

Expansion, elevation… that’s what makes Dirge stand out to me; all of Evan’s designs seem to have a common thread that runs through them, and that thread is “more.” When he takes a custom order, or evaluates a common design––a RAT for example––and he asks himself, ‘How can I take this and elevate it?’ The last RAT-style pedal he did included a custom tone stack, clipping options, and an expression jack for external gain control. For Evan, there’s no such thing as too much, at least within reason. What’s his benchmark for reasonability?

“I like people looking at my pedals and saying, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’”

In fact, there was a period of time where Dirge pedals seemed to toy with their users, daring them to forget how they define things like ‘volume’ and ‘tone’. He used to leave controls unlabeled so that players could find their own way instead of relying upon familiar old settings.

“It’s cool seeing how they’re put to use,” he gushes. “I might not be into that type of music, but it just completely opens my mind up to how something can be used. I might have an idea for a modification to a circuit and they end up using it in a different way than I had intended.”

Evan’s goals as a pedal maker aren’t exactly in-line with most other manufacturers, who turn out product after product to reach as many players as possible. Evan prefers to keep his operation small, focusing on custom orders. “I honestly have more fun [doing custom orders]. I enjoy being able to just cycle through circuit boards, that’s really zen, just loading circuit boards, but at the same time there’s something special about having a story behind every single custom pedal that I’ve made.”

Working from custom order business model allows Evan to create something very player-specific, and he can guarantee that the pedal he makes for you will be something no one else has. It’s not just about churning out pedal after pedal, it’s about dreaming something up and putting it out into the world. “I remember building every single one. It’s been fun to see where they end up, where they travel and what’s happened to them.”

But what makes Dirge stand out isn’t just the sound, it’s also the look. His art style is chaotic, often consisting of squiggly, concentric lines that never touch but form patterns like ripples on a lake, but the lake is made of wide-ruled notebook pages and the ripples are colored inks from ballpoint pens. The artwork sells his pedals just as much as the sounds.

Looking at some of his work, you almost expect to see lewd drawings of his former Social Studies teacher, or some band logos scrawled around the edges, maybe a few romantic check boxes. There are frequent appearances of coffins, skulls, and scythes, and while there’s definitely a Jr. High aesthetic in play, it’s in earnest and gives his pedals the excitement of discovering heavy music for the first time all over again.

However, Evan’s not stuck in a particular idiom; he once made an Ibanez Bottom Booster in a Unicorn-adorned enclosure. He’s done hand-drawn Big Muff enclosures with the word “DIRGE” across the front, and even has some really nice etched looks to brag about. And while his pedals often embrace visual simplicity, Evan’s actually a very skilled artist.

The 1776 Reverb, based on the Rub-A-Dub board, with a gain knob to drive the reverb hard.

The 1776 Reverb, based on the Rub-A-Dub board, with a gain knob to drive the reverb hard.

“I used to sit at a desk job all day and just draw ‘cause it was on the phone, I didn’t need my hands for anything, so I would just doodle and that would give me inspiration for the builds and drawings on the builds.” And as for the content of his visuals, Evan confesses, “I don’t know why I turned morbid.”

Having never publicly displayed his art, giving himself creative freedom with his enclosures means he now has that outlet, a way to have his work seen as part of a very specific medium, and one that serves him well. While other artists might have a breakthrough via the blogosphere (can’t believe I just typed that) or a local art show, Evan’s artwork is already touring the world, and thanks to rig rundowns and social media, it’s being seen by thousands of people each day.

When we sat down for our informal chat, Dirge had been on somewhat of a hiatus for a few months. Evan was still finishing a few pedals here and there, but as we all know, real life can sort of take over other interests. Real life, in this case, means having a baby.

“I just wanted to be with my wife as she was going through pregnancy ‘cause there were definitely hard times. At first I would build and she would watch TV or whatever and then as [the due date] got closer I just stopped building and finished up the builds that I could so that I could spend more time with her, and now, spend the time with Hunter.”

Since the birth of his son six months ago, Evan has extended his break from the pedal-making biz, but rest assured, he’ll be back with a renewed vision soon. And when he does come back (potentially later this year) he’ll be making time for a handful of orders every month. “I think what I’m gonna do from here on out is just take one, finish it, another one, finish it, and not take on a bunch at once.”

9763149681_ee1b8b6396He’s also considered doing a production run in the future, but laments that at his level, there may not be a return on that investment. For the foreseeable future, Dirge is going to be a fully custom, very personal sort of company.

So what’s next for Dirge after the break? More tweaks, more modular pedals, and even a few new ideas that have been floating around in Evan’s head. One such idea that excites him is for a special delay pedal he’s been trying to figure out, “…having such a short delay that it almost becomes a sort of cone filter.” Color me intrigued.

While talking to Evan that day, it was clear to me that no matter how he decides to balance life and business, the subject of sound will always be exciting to him. Each time he spoke of a tone he loves or a new pedal he wants to make, the passion with which he approaches Dirge Electronics wells up in him, and he beams. But there is still one thing that eclipses even the pride he feels in his pedals being used the world over:

“Dude, my son is awesome. He’s fucking great. Just fucking awesome.”

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A Note on Gibson’s Recent Price Increase and Spec Changes

Gibson-Brands_white
Earlier this week, Gibson released (or was it leaked?) statements concerning a price increase and changes to most of their models that left most of the guitar community feeling underwhelmed. Now, bear in mind that the source for this announcement was from Gibson’s Amazon.com page, the URL for which is no longer active. Could be a mistake, but our friends at Reverb.com, while unable to reveal their sources, have confirmed that the announcement is indeed genuine. (See comments)

Before we get into it, I want to say that I’m concerned by this announcement but only because I love Gibson’s instruments so much. Sure, we’re way into Jazzmasters and the like here, but I cut my teeth on Gibson guitars. Some of my earliest musical memories are deeply connected to the image and sound of Angus Young’s fleet of SGs, Jimmy Page’s EDS-1275 doubleneck, Johnny Marr’s ES-355, and I’ve always idolized the classiness of a white Les Paul Custom. My first “real” guitar was an early graduation gift from my parents, a black Gibson Les Paul Standard that they picked up for well under street price. And I got that one because high school Michael saw an old photo of Joe Perry playing almost the exact thing. Some of the best guitars I’ve owned were Gibsons, from my ’77 Walnut ES-355 to the ’68 SG Standard I sold to Other Mike for what would become my trusty Jazzmaster. I’ve owned various Les Paul Jrs, a stunning ’59 ES-330, and Gibson J-series acoustics that have blown my mind. My current acoustic is a ’64 J-50 that’s played-in and beat up, but sounds huge; the guitar I sold to fund that purchase was an ’03 J-45, which was the best acoustic I’d ever played until the ’64 came into my life.

My hope in responding to this announcement isn’t simply to complain, but to come from a place of deep respect for a company that’s meant so much to me over the years; a company that, as it seems to this casual observer, has been in decline for some time. This week’s announcement feels like an even steeper descent to me, and though I have little voice on the issue, it felt right to call out what appears to be another major misstep.

Let’s take a look at the text:

“Gibson USA continues to raise the bar of Quality, Prestige and Innovation with the new line up of 2015 guitars. All Gibson USA guitars except for the Les Paul Supreme, Firebird and Derek Trucks SG will ship with the G-Force tuning system. Among many of the added features is the new Zero Fret Nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities. The new Tune-O-Matic Bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments. All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire. All models now have Pearloid Inlays and the fingerboard is a thicker one piece rosewood which is sanded and buffed with a new oil treatment for smoother and easier playability. To take it a step further Gibson USA has increased playing comfort by widened the neck and fingerboard by .050 per side. Sparing no expense, Gibson USA even changed the internal wires from 28 awg to 26 awg, along with a new and improved jack design and together they give you an improved uninterrupted signal. For 2015 Gibson will be producing gloss lacquer finishes and no more Satin or Vintage Gloss finishes. On top of all the upgrades Gibson USA did not stop there. They are now introducing a removable Les Paul pick guard with NO SCREWS NEEDED. In honor of Les Paul’s 100th birthday all LP and SG guitars will carry the 100 logo on the headstock and a Les Paul Hologram on the back of the headstock for authenticity and tribute to the man himself. To wrap everything up, each 2015 Gibson USA guitar ships in a Gibson Hard Shell case.”

That’s a lot to take in, so let’s go through it piece by piece.

“All Gibson USA guitars except for the Les Paul Supreme, Firebird and Derek Trucks SG will ship with the G-Force tuning system.”

That’s a pretty huge statement. Note that it says “All Gibson USA guitars…” with three exceptions listed. The above leads me to the conclusion that the Les Paul Custom, SG, Flying V History, Trini Lopez, Les Paul Traditional, Grace Potter V, RD Artist, etc. will all include the G-Force tuning system. Does this also include acoustic models? I ask because the language used is “All Gibson USA” and not “All Gibson Memphis” or “All Gibson Nashville”, without mention of Gibson Montana.

aa430cc388df770d58f3c7bf2eb194a99248353cThe G-Force system (not pictured above) if you didn’t know, is just Gibson’s Min-ETune but rebranded. Part of the evolution of the Robot system, the Min-ETune promised quicker and more accurate tuning with a smaller overall footprint, taking the tuning facilities out of the signal path of the pickups completely. Never a fan of self-tuning guitars personally, I certainly can’t fault Gibson for developing a product, but to force that product onto every model –– a product that most musicians don’t seem to want –– doesn’t seem like a wise move.

As a tech, I’ve worked on plenty of the Robot and Min-ETune guitars, but would you guess that one of the most frequent requests I’ve gotten with the lower-model Robot guitars is to remove the Robot tuners and convert them to a normal guitar? At first, it was because the battery life wasn’t feasible for most touring acts. (I mean, who has time to charge their guitar between sets?) Later, either the owner felt the tuners weren’t dependable or didn’t look good, which I’ve heard quite a few times. The Robot models were fundamentally great guitars, so it wasn’t much of a problem to put them back to, um, regular guitar specs.

LP-Std-HeroOf course, some people find the Robot/Min-ETune guitars to be useful, and that’s great! I knew a guy that used his blueburst first-edition Robot Les Paul and loves it because he can go from Standard to any number of slide tunings he uses on a regular basis. It works for him, and that’s great. However, it seems to be a smaller subset of players that actually want guitars to tune themselves, and offering the Min-ETune as standard across the board doesn’t make me want to purchase a new Gibson any time soon.

“Among many of the added features is the new Zero Fret Nut which is a patented applied for nut that has adjustable action capabilities.”

One of the most common complaints players have about factory-fresh Gibson guitars is that the nut isn’t up to snuff. Either the owner isn’t happy with Corian or Tektoid™ as a nut material, or it’s improperly cut at the factory with the strings too high off the fretboard or pinging wildly with string bending. One of the most frequent jobs I take for Gibson guitars is replacing the nut with a hand-cut piece of bone.

61y2CirnMkL__SL1500__zps9c453266_uofv8cThe new Gibson “Zero Fret Nut” is a nut that has an adjustable brass insert that allows the user to fine-tune action without having to use files. (This idea isn’t exactly new; for years Warwick has offered an adjustable nut on some of their models.) The brass insert also mimics the zero fret found on old Gretsch and Teisco guitars, which governed string height at the first fret by being taller than the other frets while doing away with the need for exacting nut shaping techniques. Traditional zero frets also have the added effect of making open notes sound as if they’re being fretted, resulting in brighter tones from open strings. This was also the goal with the brass nut craze of the ’70s and ’80s, a modification that’s largely reversed on most instruments today.

I can see how this new Zero Fret Nut makes sense from a manufacturing standpoint; workers don’t have to spend more time trying to properly slot nut after nut all day long, which takes up time and money. Instead, they can simply use a small tool to raise the strings until they’re at a satisfactory height, then send it out the door. However, we know from Gibson’s adjustable acoustic bridge of the ’60s that having movable parts at such critical points in the string path isn’t necessarily a recipe for great tone. And although there are some players who prefer brass nuts on their guitars, with the market so obsessed with vintage originality and “tone” most brass nuts are tossed with preference for era-correct materials.

As a tech, I can see myself replacing a lot of these next year.

“The new Tune-O-Matic Bridge features a hex wrench adjustment on thumbscrews for easy action adjustments.”

I’m not going to poo-poo this out of hand, as we’ve all been stuck with too-low or too-high action on a guitar with a TOM bridge and have had to struggle with gripping thumbwheels as hard as we can before the next song starts. The proper way would always be to loosen the strings before adjusting action, but I won’t pretend that not everyone wants to go to that trouble. Of course, thumbwheels aren’t always hard to turn, but anything that makes adjustment easier is potentially a good thing.

The only objection I have to this change is that Allen keys aren’t usually my favorite way to make bridge adjustments, whether it be action or intonation. The Mastery Bridge is an exception to this, being designed with ease of use in mind, but adjusting intonation with hex keys on most other bridges is not fun at all. I’m also curious to how exactly this thumbscrew adjustment works, whether the key inserts at the top or from the side. Without more info, I really don’t know how this might play out.

“All guitars receive a professional set up with accurate intonation, and a new PLEK program with 27% lower fret wire.”

As a tech, I’m somewhat glad to hear this. If these factory setups are actually setups, then I’m excited to walk into a shop and play an on-the-rack Gibson and know it’s going to feel great. Factory “setups” are often disappointing, with action left high to hide bad fret jobs, lessening buzz and rattle that shouldn’t be there in the first place. I mean, sure, a percentage of my business comes from fixing factory mistakes, but if this means that a customer can buy a guitar knowing that it feels good, then that can’t be a bad thing. I’ll try to hold off judgement on this until I play one, because the track record for factory adjustments isn’t good.

blog_P1040558-300x221Although I’ve never been too happy with factory PLEK fret jobs, I’m looking forward to seeing what this new program holds for consumers. Again, taking a guitar off the guitar shop wall and knowing it’s going to have perfectly leveled frets is a boon; just this week, one of my tasks is to level and crown the frets of a brand new Gibson, which is disappointing to the owner. I’m also interested by the idea of lower fretwire, because I’m one of those guys that can’t stand jumbo frets, personally.

“All models now have Pearloid Inlays and the fingerboard is a thicker one piece rosewood which is sanded and buffed with a new oil treatment for smoother and easier playability.”

Nothing too crazy there. The new oil treatment could be cool, especially when most rosewood necks coming from Gibson right now are incredibly dried-out. I wonder just how much thicker these fretboards will be, but I wonder if they mention it only because of the minor controversy surrounding Gibson using laminated fretboards on models back in 2012. Many players were less than happy about the change (to put it mildly) but in response to questions about the laminates Juszkiewicz said “It actually doesn’t change the sound at all,” and “…actually improves the sound.” He also claimed it will “last longer,” but I guess we’ll see. Don’t be surprised if I politely disagree.

UPDATE: Holy shit, I didn’t even think about this until I scrolled through the conversation going on over at Offset Guitar Forum tonight. Again, the phrase “all models” is used here, which causes alarm when we remember that all models don’t have rosewood fretboards… Does this mean that even Les Paul Customs (which had ebony boards until the Government seizure/Henry and Fox and Friends jamboree of 2012 when Gibson switched to the option of baked maple or Richlite, a synthetic material) will now have rosewood instead? Because I hate to tell you Gibson, but we used to buy LPCs because they have ebony fretboards. Oh man, say it ain’t so.

“To take it a step further Gibson USA has increased playing comfort by widened the neck and fingerboard by .050 per side.”

Again, not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know that many people are complaining that Gibson’s necks are too thin these days, but I’ll reserve judgement until I have one in my hand –– it’s really not a huge difference. This seems to be a reaction to player feedback on Gibson’s use of binding nibs on the fret ends of most bound models, which never bothered me personally but I’ve heard more than a few players complain that their strings are getting caught between the fret and binding as of late.

“Sparing no expense, Gibson USA even changed the internal wires from 28 awg to 26 awg, along with a new and improved jack design and together they give you an improved uninterrupted signal.”

Whoa. Slow down there, Gibson. Don’t go spending all of that precious money on such thick wire! Also, I wasn’t aware that my signal was being interrupted, but there you go. #newjack2015

“For 2015 Gibson will be producing gloss lacquer finishes and no more Satin or Vintage Gloss finishes. On top of all the upgrades Gibson USA did not stop there. They are now introducing a removable Les Paul pick guard with NO SCREWS NEEDED.”

This is possibly the most distressing passage from the now-removed Amazon page. With the doing-away of satin finishes, this could mean the end of sub-$1000 Gibson guitars, which I thought were best sellers for the company. Having quality, affordable guitars in the line should be important to both Gibson and consumers, so I’m hoping they’ll be introducing some models that retain the low price tag and quality of the Faded series.

Additionally, the language isn’t specific as to what type of finish the “gloss lacquer” might be, just that it’s lacquer. Hopefully this is just Gibson saying the company will still use nitrocellulose instead of switching to something else like acrylic.

Gibson have been shipping guitars for ages without installed pickguards, so this could be cool or not. How does it work? I don’t know, but we’ll all be keeping our eyes peeled on that one.

“In honor of Les Paul’s 100th birthday all LP and SG guitars will carry the 100 logo on the headstock and a Les Paul Hologram on the back of the headstock for authenticity and tribute to the man himself.”

It’s a well-known fact that Les Paul LOVED holograms, so I think we can all safely assume that this is what he wanted. I remember reading an interview where he voiced his distaste for the SG when it came out in ’61, which had a lot to do with the body shape and how they moved the neck pickup away from the neck, but Les also revealed that the main reason he wanted his name off of the guitar was due to the lack of holograms.

“Back in the ’50s I said to Ted [McCarty, Gibson CEO 1948-66] ‘Hey, I like what you got going here. It sounds good, plays alright. But the thing is there aren’t enough goddamned holograms on the thing.’ And Ted scratched his head, because we really didn’t have the technology back then, and we didn’t come back to the idea until they made the laser back in, was it ’60? When they slapped my name on the SG without asking, and I said, ‘Hey, whaddabout them holograms!’ but it was too late. So I had them take my name off.” (Gibson Les Paul Book, Bacon, pg 148*)

I’m sure that, were Les alive today, he would be overjoyed. I’m joking, of course. LES PAUL HATED HOLOGRAMS. He called them “3D-for-Devil pictures.”**

Les+Paul+Dies+At+94+o8Y8pex-Z3Fm
Aside from the new logo looking a bit strange (see the Zero Fret Nut pic above) it is Les Paul’s handwriting and that’s a nice thing to have. This could also be one of the only truly collectable aspects of the guitar, so perhaps this change will work in its favor. Not mentioned in the above copy is that the Gibson Logo is swirly.

“To wrap everything up, each 2015 Gibson USA guitar ships in a Gibson Hard Shell case.”

Okay, this is great. No longer will customers have to argue with store staff about how their guitar actually, definitely does come with a case when they want to charge an extra $100 or give them a gig bag.

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All in all, this list of changes is pretty hard to stomach, especially when the one thing left out is just how much the price of guitars will increase. Now, prices do go up over time when manufacturing costs rise, but our friends at Reverb.com note that while a 2014 Les Paul Standard with flame top “…comes in at $2999, the 2015 equivalent will start at $3879, marking a roughly 29% increase.” That’s a HUGE MAP increase. How will it play out? We won’t know until they’re available.

Let me be clear: I love Gibson guitars, but this is crazy. Perhaps consumer feedback on this list of changes could do some good, but I believe they’ll end up doing far more harm than good. It’s never good to add features your customers don’t want when they’ve been asking for simple, well-built instruments for some time.

Like I said before, I guess we’ll have to wait and see…

…or this could all be a ploy to cause us to rush out and snatch up 2014 models. And then I think that perhaps this could all be just a 2015 model year only affair, meaning that things go back to the way they were in ’14. Who knows? Hopefully we’ll get that info soon.

*Not a real quote. I made that up.
**Also, totally not real.

UPDATE 9/24/14: I visited Guitar Center Seattle with a friend of mine tonight, and the store had just received the first shipment of 2015 Gibson guitars. Suffice it to say, all of the above is absolutely true, including the G-Force tuners on every guitar, the Zero Fret nut, and wider necks. I’ll be posting an in-hand review shortly. Until then, look on Gibson’s works, ye mighty, and despair!

 

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#Weezerquest: The Story of ‘My Name Is Jonas Brothers’

IMG_5567-impIf you happen to follow us on our various social media platforms (Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook) then you’re probably already keyed into the fact that we LOVE Weezer. And it’s also true that we have a bit of an obsession with the band, from their sound and gear, to the lore and mystery surrounding the parts guitars, various amp heads and studio setups that make the records we love.

We’re particularly enamored with Weezer’s first two records, 1994’s self-titled debut –– affectionately known as ‘Blue’ to fans –– and 1996’s Pinkerton. Brilliantly crafted power-pop abounded within, with lyrics that require thought and inspection to decode further than the oft-used “geek rock” label, as well as some of the most massive guitar tones I’ve ever heard. And, much like finding newly-unearthed deleted scenes from Star Wars, Weezer’s unreleased B-sides were just as exciting.

As you can imagine, our daily conversations at the shop would often turn to deep, Weezer-related questions; we’d discuss the effect Matt Sharp’s raw, distorted tone on Pinkerton affected the feel of that record; how our minds were blown when we first realized Blue was recorded with an old Les Paul Special DC with P90s, rather than the Strat with humbuckers we see in concerts; how Weezer sounded different from most bands simply because they used low 5ths in their barre chords. Invariably, the question “Just how in the hell did they get that tone?” would turn into an hours-long debate, riddled with speculation and adult beverages.

An in-process shot of my Rivers Cuomo tribute Strat and mock 8×10 cab!

An in-process shot of my Rivers Cuomo tribute Strat and mock 8×10 cab!

Over the years, we joked often about starting a Weezer cover band, of which there are many in Seattle. Once Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar started taking on a life of its own, it didn’t take long for us to start talking about that old idea in a serious tone. Finally in late 2013, we decided to really go for it, but with one major caveat: we didn’t want to just be another cover band. We wanted to go full-Weezer, replicating the gear responsible for some of our favorite rock tones.

Given the amount of guitars and amps that come through the shop, we decided to get absolutely manic, using our gear hunting skills and detail-oriented minds to deeply research all of the equipment the band used during those years, getting as close as possible to the look, sound and experience that made Weezer so formidable. We poured over the albums themselves, sought out live and studio photos from 1994-1998 (many of which were scans of developed film) and accumulated massive databases of screenshots and the like in order to nail down every last spec we could reasonably determine. We combed through interviews, Weezerpedia articles, forums… you name it.

It’s been a months-long process, but let me tell you: it’s been well-worth it. We’ve beautifully replicated the guitars, amp rigs and modifications that made Weezer sound like Weezer, and we’ve done so with fervor and conviction. We’ve even been lucky enough to gain the attention of the band themselves through the process! Former bassist Matt Sharp has even taken an interest in our attempts at recreating his iconic Jazz Bass, taunting us via social media to let us know when we missed something!

That’s my close-as-I-can-get-from-photos Matt Sharp Jazz Bass replica, worn by our good friend Leah, who used her attentive eye to recreate the ’96’ sticker found on the pickguard of the original bass. Matt Sharp posted the above photo on his Instagram account along with some extremely kind words, our contact info and a challenge to his followers:

…help me salute and celebrate these two lovely lunatics, go to Mike And Mike’s Guitar Bar and take a pic with this crazy, monstrosity of a bajo-doppelgänger and I’ll regram whomever posts the best pic.

The best part? I caught his message about us right after playing a killer first show with our Weezer tribute act, My Name Is Jonas Brothers. Great night or greatest night? What an incredible honor!

In the few weeks since our very first show, the response we’ve gotten from Weezer fans and aficionados has been, well, overwhelming. Even before we played a note, our Tumblr and Instagram followers and friends were cheering us on, and our equally-obsessive bandmates have spurred us on to a level of detail we never thought possible. And frequent Instagram commenter Dan Murphy even coined a hashtag just for us: #weezerquest. (Use it to follow along!)

So now, we’d like to take you on a tour through our journey to put together what we believe might just be the most badass Weezer cover band on the planet. Also, we feel it necessary to document not only our processes and instruments, but also whatever illness we might have that compels us to get so exacting with this band.

And if you didn’t notice, the photo at the beginning of the article isn’t the gatefold photo from 1994’s Blue album. THAT’S OUR GEAR!

#weezerquest is live!

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Redemption for Matt’s ‘Midnight Cowboy’

IMG_2625-impby Michael James Adams

If you’ve been around the shop at all in the last year, chances are you’ve met the third ‘Mike’ AKA Matt. Matt’s a good friend of ours and Mike Ball’s band mate in The Verb, Goldie Wilson and Elephant Runner. I always thought our little shop was pretty cool, but I can honestly say that having Matt around is a huge boon for us; never has our shipping department run so smoothly, nor have our books looked so pulpy.

Matt’s a fantastic bass player in The Verb and Goldie Wilson, anchoring the low end on his Fender Jazz Bass with an equally thick and loud tone. He’s also a great guitarist, but Matt has had a hell of a time getting everything he wants out of his trusty Telecaster.

Turning Tricks

His Tele, we think, is a bit of a hodge-podge, and so it’s not entirely clear which parts are original Fender and which are from non-Fender sources. It’s a fundamentally good instrument. It’s equipped with an ultra-wide ’50s style maple neck, what we assume to be an alder body (that paint is seriously thick) and standard electronics, save for the pickups: in the bridge is a microphonic ’59 Esquire model from Illusion Pickups, but there was a big surprise in the neck: a gold Gibson Firebird pickup we later discovered was a vintage patent number pickup from the 1960s! Score!

Even with what should be a great pickup combo, the guitar didn’t have quite the tonal options Matt was looking for, so he decided a third pickup was in order. After discussing all of the available options a few months ago, Matt became enamored with the look and sound of the Charlie Christian pickups wound by Jason Lollar. And who could blame him; with a louder, darker personality, we believe the CC would end up being the perfect panacea for the otherwise bright tone of this particular instrument.

“I’m working here! I’m working here!”

IMG_2544-impInstallation of the Lollar CC pickup requires the addition of an oversized, rectangular pickup route in order to fit the vaguely triangular bottom bobbin of the pickup. By a stroke of pure coincidence, our good friend Phil had shown up at the shop some time ago with a set of router templates for–you guessed it–the Lollar CC pickup. Armed with those beautiful plexiglass templates, the hard part of my job was already done!

Aside from the additional pickup, Matt also asked for one of our vinyl record pickguards, this one cut from the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. (We’ve taken to calling the guitar that, too.) We also replaced the non-Fender ashtray bridge with a Joe Barden unit with compensated brass saddles and a handy cutout on the treble side, which is something I wish other companies would add as an option.

Here's what it looked like all wired up. We did revise the wiring a few times after this shot was taken.

Here’s what it looked like all wired up. We did revise the wiring a few times after this shot was taken.

Controlling all three pickups is a rather ingenious scheme, and I wish I could say I thought of it all by myself. Matt wanted to be able to retain the familiar Telecaster controls of standard models with the added ability to blend in the middle as needed. Sure, we went through a number of custom wiring ideas including putting the CC on a push-pull pot, using a five-way Strat switch, maybe even a blend knob, but nothing really struck Matt’s fancy. Then Matt had the brilliant idea of using concentric pots just like the ones found on the earliest Fender ‘stack knob’ Jazz Basses. Incidentally, those happen to be my favorite Jazz Basses.

It just so happened that AllParts stocks the proper concentric pots and knobs for that exact Jazz Bass model, with an inner 500K and a 250K on the outside. These are meant to be wired as a combination volume and tone control for each pickup, but we devised something a little more fun: the 250K pots of each control wired together as a standard Telecaster control scheme, and the 500Ks utilized as volume and tone for the Charlie Christian!

“I ain’t a f’real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!”

All wired up, this thing is impressive; the bridge pickup gives you that classic Tele twang and bite, but the Firebird pickup in the neck adds a whole other dimension of paradoxically warm yet bright tone. But that Lollar CC… that’s the star of the show! When soloed, it has a P90 sort of feel but much smoother and darker, and it doesn’t bark as much as it rolls over for tummy rubs. When blended with either of the other two pickups, it’s as if you’re hearing more of the guitar, almost as if the tone is being de-electrified; It’s really something to behold.

IMG_3144-impAfter reassembly, we finally decided the bridge pickup was far too microphonic to be useful, so we gave it a thorough wax bath. Armed with our Goodwill crock pot (which set us back a hefty $4) and a pound of wax, we bathed the pickup for about 15 minutes. I’m happy to report that not only did the pickup perform beautifully when reintroduced to the guitar (quieter than ever!) but we now have enough wax to pot every pickup ever made since the 1950s. I had never considered what a pound of wax looks like, but I can now tell you we have approximately a door of wax.

I also went ahead and cut a new, unbleached bone nut for Matt as the string spacing on the original was just too damn wide. The wide neck is a plus for Matt, accustomed as he is to bass necks, but when both E strings just want to fall off the side of the neck, adjusting the spacing can only be a good thing. And unbleached bone just looks soooooo good.

The end result:

IMG_2919-imp
“You look real nice, lover boy. Real nice.”

Check that out! Pretty sweet, right? I really enjoy doing these one-off custom jobs, and Matt’s Telecaster has never looked, sounded or felt better! Get in touch with us if an off-the-beaten-path custom job is in your future!

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar, Pt. 2: Bridge Over Troubled Vibrato

IMG_2101By Michael James Adams

A few weeks back, we took some time to fully explain the electronic innerworkings of Fender’s paradoxically well-loved and oft-maligned models, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. For many players, the tonal options available on these guitars is a breath of fresh air; for others, the switching becomes an exercise in futility, leaving them to wonder how to just turn on the bridge pickup. Hopefully we helped!

In today’s column, we’re going to dive into what be the most misunderstood and subsequently damning design element on these amazing guitars: the bridge.

It’s a common occurrence for players who are used to Strats and Teles or Les Pauls to get the Offset itch and pick up a Jazzmaster or Jaguar and find that it doesn’t play quite the way they expected: strings will slip out of their grooves with moderate pick attack, the bridge sways back and forth with vibrato action, and sympathetic ‘ghost’ notes will ring out from behind the bridge, prompting many stymied players to install a Buzzstop. Please, don’t do that just yet – I’m begging you to get to know your seemingly unwieldy friend before you do something rash.

Shim Shenanigans

Conventional guitar wisdom tells us that shims are bad. They’re tone-sucking, sustain-killing, useless pieces of paper that shouldn’t come anywhere near a neck pocket, right? Well, about that…

That's A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

That’s A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

Most of the vintage Fender guitars we love came from the factory with at least one shim installed, and I’ve seen vintage guitars with four or more original shims! Telecasters, for example, might have a shim in the front edge of the neck pocket so that when the guitar is strung, the strings sit closer to the top of the ashtray bridge instead of down in the middle, which isn’t exactly the most comfortable place for picking. Also, the height adjustment screws on the brass bridge saddles could be longer than necessary, which means sharp pieces of metal digging into your picking hand. Not fun.

Many players operate under the belief that a shim will kill their tone, and to an extent they have a point. Obviously, for maximum sustain and tonal transfer, it makes sense to have a tight neck pocket with full wood-on-wood contact. Here’s the thing: tone is subjective, and the vast majority of us won’t be able to hear the difference between a shimmed and un-shimmed guitar. Add to that the fact that many of the old-school tones we’re all chasing were created with shimmed guitars, and the argument gets even more murky. And, unlike Strats and Teles, Jazzmasters and Jaguars were actually designed with shims in mind!

Break Angle Benefits

You see, Leo Fender knew that his floating bridge design needed a certain amount of downward force to work properly, so he used shims in the leading edge of the neck pocket to adjust the angle of the neck, causing the strings to pass over the bridge at a sharper angle. This is called the break angle.

The further back he tilted the neck, the bridge would have to be set higher to achieve playable action, and thus, more downward force on the bridge. More downward force on the bridge also means greater tonal transfer via the contact between the bridge and its thimbles, which in turn transfer that vibration to the body, and then who the hell really knows how much sustain and resonance you’re losing or gaining?! It boggles the mind.

When players complain about their strings slipping out of the tiny grooves on their saddles, more often than not the problem isn’t the saddle, it’s the aforementioned break angle.  A sharper break angle means more downward force on the bridge, which in turn helps to keep the strings seated! One other solution is to deepen the grooves with a file, which is a fine solution that I’ve had to use a few times. It’s not my first choice fix, but with some guitars with worn or import bridges, there’s not much else you can do, short of replacing the bridge. More on that later.

Players will also cite excessive mechanical buzz from their bridges as a source of frustration, but again, I point to neck/break angle as the first solution. Most of the time, the bridge buzzes because of a weak break angle and thus, less pressure, which means the saddles themselves aren’t tightly seated on the bridge plate. Tilt that neck back and voila, the buzz disappears. At least, it usually does; new bridges that haven’t been played-in will often make noise because they don’t have years of oxidation helping to tighten things up. In that case, either sweat a lot or dab some blue Loc-Tite* on the saddle screws, which will not only diminish rattle but also ensure that screws don’t turn when you don’t want them to.

The other solution to this problem is the Buzz-Stop, an add-on unit that screws into the trem plate and forces the strings down toward the body. While this solution certainly works, it also kills the vibe of having a Jazzmaster or Jaguar; the strings behind the bridge are deadened – a huge part of what makes these guitars  so fun! – and the vibrato has another point of friction to contend with, making it work less efficiently. It also makes the guitar feel different in terms of playability, but feel is subjective.IMG_4061

Rock. YEAH. Ing. YEAH. Bridge. YEAH. YEAH. YEAH!

For the Jazzmaster, Leo Fender designed a new “floating” vibrato system which revolved around a bridge that rocks back and forth as the whammy bar is actuated and promised unparalleled control and flutter as well as better tuning stability. But if this system was supposed to be so great, why does it seem like everyone complains about it?

A lot of people don’t understand that the bridge is supposed to rock, which understandably freaks them out. I’ll admit that this feature isn’t my favorite element of the design, but it really does work, but not perfectly. The bridge doesn’t always return to its zero position, but this is a problem just about every trem system on the market has, and if we lived in a perfect world it would be enough.

If the rocking bridge bothers you and makes your intonation spotty, a lot of us will wrap the bridge with foil tape, which locks it into place in its thimbles. The vibrato still works well like this, but again, it’s not a total solution. This is yet another issue addressed by the Mastery Bridge, with its larger diameter posts that fit snugly into the bridge thimbles.

A Word About String Gauge

When Leo was rolled out the Jazzmaster, he intended to market the guitar to Jazz players, hence the addition of the darker preset rhythm circuit. Because of this, the guitar was also designed with heavy-gauge flat-wound strings in mind. Back in the day, light guitar strings weren’t readily available, especially when it came to flats. That’s why you so often hear older guitarists talking about using a banjo string on the high E and moving the rest of the set over one string! Jazz players were often using sets as heavy as .014”, and .011” sets were considered pretty measly by comparison.

When the Jazzmaster rolled out, the idea was that these jazzers would be using at least .012” flat sets on the guitar, which have much more tension than today’s slinkier round-wound strings. Heavier strings equals greater tension, get it? If you ever try to put flat-wound 12s on a Jazzmaster, they usually won’t go anywhere.

When you want to use light strings on a Jazzmaster or Jaguar, you’re going to have to compensate somehow. You’ll need to increase the break angle and adjust the bridge, but if you’re going lighter than .011” sets you might also consider swapping out the bridge for those found on Fender Mustang guitars, which have a single, deep groove for each string. Or, you could go for the ultimate upgrade, the Mastery Bridge, but I’d make that recommendation to anyone regardless of string gauge. The Mastery Bridge is hands-down the best upgrade you can make to your Fender Offset guitar in my opinion. With it, you may still need a bit of a neck angle adjustment, but your strings will definitely stay on their saddles.

Next time, we’ll take a brief look behind the bridge and how to work with the vibrato unit for greater tuning stability and control. Wanna go wild and return to pitch? We’ve got you covered!

Mastery on a '58. Yessir.

Mastery on a ’58. Yessir.

*CAUTION: Never, ever use the red Loc-Tite on guitar parts unless you want them permanently frozen in place. The blue variety is meant for a non-permanent bond, allowing the user to make adjustments down the line. I think they’ve just come out with a green formula as well that’s not as strong, but I haven’t used it. Also, that stuff dries clear, so don’t freak out when you put blue goop all over your shiny new guitar. It’s cool. Simmer down.

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About that Lincoln Joke

By Michael James Adams

On Tuesday morning, I posted a little quip to my Facebook page about the new Spielberg-directed Abraham Lincoln film. I had a moment of clarity wherein a thought came to me, errant and wild, urging me to cherry-pick just the right words to complete it. It went like this:

“Evidently Lincoln is doing well in theaters despite historical evidence to the contrary.”

Pretty good, yeah? I thought so. And so did a lot of my friends. In fact, so many of my friends liked the joke that the shares started piling up, and I started to see it pop up in my news feed. Most were good enough to attribute!

It took off so well that I thought, “Well, let’s just see how this does on Tumblr.” I readied my text post and hit the Publish button, and then went on with the rest of my evening. Ten minutes later I checked back (we have a few faithful followers that seem to ‘like’ most everything we post) and was shocked at the number of notes that had gathered on the post: 100.

I was catching up on video games at the time – I had forgotten how much I loved Half-Life 2 – so I had my computer handy over the next 15 minutes, during which time the notes had climbed to around 300. This was unusual, as our most reblogged photo slowed down around 200 after a period of just over a week. Still, I remained vigilant until I had to pick up my actor-wife from rehearsal. When I returned half an hour later, the total had doubled.

That night I stayed up to continue fighting against the Combine, and before I went to bed I took this screen shot:

Now, bear in mind that this is our first post that ever reached so many different people. I was thrilled, and starting to see our follower count rise as well. That felt nice, as if I accomplished something, and as a small business owner it’s always good to have people become aware of your shop. I went to bed with the satisfaction of having said something both funny and fairly original fluttering in my mind.

When I woke up the next day, I was shocked. 10,000. 10,000. Ten thousand… That’s an insane number, larger than I could imagine. By the time I got to work, it was up to 13,000, which if you’re good at math, is more than the previously stated number.

By mid-day the quote had amassed over 20,000 hits. Around this time, I started getting messages from friends, telling me that they had friends using the joke on them in conversation. One friend even stated that 100% of the interactions he’d had with people featured the joke. Seriously. That’s insane.

Out of nowhere, the now-infamous Lincoln joke had taken on a life of its own, making the rounds on the front page of Reddit.com twice, on Imgur, and it’s being copied to Facebook status bars all across the globe. That’s insane.

On Thursday it became a featured post in the #LOL category, gaining the signature blue tag somewhere in the 30,000s. Each time I log in, our dashboard is riddled with reposts and replies. By far the most common response to the post is “TOO SOON!”

Even now, the post is continuing to gain momentum on Tumblr, now having over 50,000 notes. It’s graced humor blogs and Facebook aggregates by the dozens. It’s even become a questionably effective meme, which is perhaps not as elegant as the plain text version. All in all, I’m really impressed.

I’ve read comment after comment in response to this joke, ranging from the hilarious (“You owe me a keyboard!” and, “I laughed so hard I spit coffee all over my screen!”) and congratulatory (“You got a shit-ton of notes on that post!”) to the defensive (“This came from Tumblr!”) to the accusatory (“This was stolen from Letterman.” and, “Learn to spell ‘theatre’, stupid Americans!”) and what really moves me is that people are actually taking the time to comment. Think about how crazy that is: people have busy lives, full of work and busy bodied goings-on, and yet they take time to write something. That’s awesome. And, for the record, people are saying that Letterman did a joke similar to this on Monday night, but I don’t have cable. I am, however, happy to share the limelight with Dave.

See what I mean? It’s not as good.

So, why write about this? Am I that full of myself that I want to brag about being funny on the internet? Not really. I’m writing out of a deep fascination of how all of this works; I’ve never had something like this happen to me, and so I’m able to satisfy my curiosity. I’ve watched this little quote grow and grow, and it’s grown so large that it’s being repurposed and reused at light speed. It’s freaking everywhere. Plus, I’ve not updated the site in well over a week, and I have to write about something!

My other reason for writing is to share my own response to this surprisingly popular joke, as I’ve not had a forum to comment on the internet buzz at large. I’ve been looking forward to sharing my thoughts on the subject!

1) I’m amazed and humbled that something I said has reached so many people. The internet truly has the power to reach more people than I could have ever imagined, and it’s a powerful message on the weight of words. Every day, I read countless words of hate and ignorance on any number of websites, sometimes even on my own Facebook feed. Some days, that negative voice seems overwhelming, overpowering… but in this fun experiment, it’s encouraging to learn that hate is not the only loud voice in the world, and that even something as eye-rollingly silly as my little joke can also have an influence.

2) I realize that 50,000 likes and reblogs doesn’t amount to much in the real world. As excited as I was watching the numbers escalate, I never thought for a moment that they would be anything more than numbers. I highly doubt that I’ll be fielding calls for writing jobs or taking interviews as “the guy who made up that Lincoln joke”. (Wouldn’t all of that be fun, though?) As it stands, the numbers are simply numbers, not an indication of my personal worth or popularity. But Tina Fey, I’m available.

3) Again I’m humbled by all of this fanfare surrounding this joke. Aside from Tumblr‘s ability to track back the quote to our mmguitarbar page, there’s really nothing connecting my name to this quote. And although I’m thankful for the back-tracking, credit isn’t really what makes me happy. What really thrills me is the idea of something I’ve said floating around the globe, appearing on innumerable screens, being reposted on Timelines, reused as Facebook status updates and mentioned as a zinger in thousands of unique conversations between unique individuals. That’s amazing to me.

It’s a huge honor to have this quote floating out there in the ether, causing laughter and broken computers world wide. It’s a thought that reminds me just how big this world really is, and also paradoxically small. That a joke can be so widespread is nothing short of a miracle of nature, culture and like-minded humor.

I also realize that aside from someone doing some research, it’s not likely the quote will ever been officially attributed to me, nor will I receive any personal accolades or acknowledgement for it. And that’s fine with me, really. It doesn’t really belong to me anyway, given its broad reach and appeal. I’m just glad it’s out there, bringing joy to someone. That’s the greatest gift I ever could have hope for. At the end of my life, if I have one really good joke to look back on, one that has done this much traveling, that’s a huge honor. Seriously! This is good for everyone!

And in the end, all that really matters is that my joke made someone smile. Tell you what: from now on, it’s not just my joke; it is our joke.

-MJA

UPDATE 11/17/12:
The joke appears to have gotten a second wind, thanks to the illustrious George Takei, who just posted it on his Facebook page. That’s even cooler than any of the other things I mentioned! I love that guy! And check out the fresh likes! Again, this is insane.

UPDATE 2: 11/24/12
I’m as famous as I’ll ever be, as the Honey Boo Boo Child parody twitter account has tweeted a version of the infamous joke. Amazeballs.

Scariest Music: Halloween 2012 Edition

Halloween always makes me hungry for scary things. Movies, video games, books, and creepy stories of my home town all come to mind along with the appetite for truly frightening fare. I look to the brilliant works of H.P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Silent Hill 2 & 3, Fatal Frame, Resident Evil 2 and Eternal Darkness to sate my desires, but what about music? Is there any truly frightening music out there? I mean, aside from the Beibers and Insane Clown Posses of our era.

I think so. In the spirit of the holiday, here are some of my favorites:

Zao’s Liberate Te Ex Inferis

Though the title of this album is grammatically incorrect, its rough English translation is “Save Yourself From Hell“, which is all I need to hear to get my blood moving. Like an omen for the would-be listener, artwork for the album was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and the track list is broken up into pairs named after the rings of hell: Limbo, The Lustful, The Gluttonous, The Hoarders and Spendthrifts, and The Wrathful.

Characterized by its metalcore sound, Zao was always known for its drop-tuned guitars, non-standard chord structures, and a love of dissonance. Gaunt, angular riffs and non-Euclidean chord progressions perfectly frame singer Dan Weyandt’s tortured vocals and cinematic lyrics pieced together from Apocalyptic foretellings and repurposed biblical imagery.

Part of what makes this particular record so effective is its roughly-hewn production; instead of the kind of tight, polished metal recordings we’re used to, this album takes on a decidedly loose feel. Whereas most producers might go for basketball kicks and software snares, the percussion here is full with a sense of space around them. The kick is low, muddy and dark, and cymbals seem to be coming from far off in the distance thanks to just the right amount of slapback echo. The guitars are pleasantly sludgy, mixing mammoth tones with those reminiscent of a Boss SD-1 through a buzzy 10″ practice amp to great effect.

Another piece of the horrorific puzzle here is the vocals. Dan Weyandt has, quite possibly, the most ghastly scream I’ve ever heard. It’s consistent, it’s demonic, and has an inhuman quality about it – it sounds as if it’s coming from a skinless nightmare beast rather than a long-haired, tattooed white dude. His is the kind of voice I would expect to hear from one of Lovecraft’s Elder Ones. Weyandt’s presentation here is everything, and so his howling, guttural yells are just low enough in the mix that even if you could understand him you’re not sure you’d want to.

When it comes to horror, subject matter is everything. You may not be surprised, then, to discover that Liberate was heavily inspired by the terrifying cult film Event Horizon. In the 1997 film, scientists created a starship capable of traveling great distances in an instant. Not quite traditional warp speed, the Event Horizon creates its own artificial black hole to fold space. No big deal, right? On its maiden voyage to Proxima Centauri the crew engages its “gravity drive” and disappears. Seven years later, it mysteriously reappears in a decaying orbit around Neptune with no contact or crew, and the viewer is lucky enough to be taken along for the ride to find out just what happened.

The film was poorly received when it came out, but has since gained cult status. Even though it has its flaws, that film is truly one of the most horrifying movies I have ever seen, and Zao deftly employ sound samples from the film to mate flesh to bone. The opening instrumental track of the record shambles along with its arms outstretched, before climaxing in a doomy storm of feedback and actor Sam Neil declaring “You know nothing. Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse.”

From that point on, the record is relentless in its thematic terror. Frenzied riffs and deranged 2/4 beats coagulate with demoralizing pop interludes and Weyandt’s singularly dark lyrics. The second song “Savannah” could just as easily be the DVD commentary for Event Horizon:

A day not to forget
The machine has collapsed under the program it’s been given
Look inside the broken shell
Look inside the broken shell
To see the broken heart
They can’t believe the machine was alive but we saw it bleed
We saw it bleed [8x]
The machine it falls apart and when it’s cut it bleeds
The machine bleeds [6x]
She was alive

I mean, my god! What a chilling way to open a record.

“Autopsy”, the very next track on the album, is the first instance of Zao’s effective use of decidedly un-metal sounds to further its unhinged moodiness. You may be aghast, questioning, “Tambourine? In my metal?” It’s better than you think. Really, hearing that tambourine treading through the verse sections of this song ups the creepy quotient of the album to a maddening degree, but then they do it again with the opening acoustic riffs of “If These Scars Could Speak”, a song like a seance or a ritualistic virgin sacrifice. At this point, I expect the dead to rise again.

“Ghost Psalm” just creeps me right the hell out, with repeated sections chanting “I am buried with your words” above a eerie dance-rock beat. Then there’s Dan Weyandt whispering in your ear, “Time to go one last look, one last touch. A ghost to those I love”, instantly sending shivers up my spine. I am now actively looking over my shoulder with the feeling that I’m being watched.

Where “Scars” makes even an acoustic guitar so foreboding and malevolent, “Skin Like Winter” (widely regarded as a signature Zao tune) opens with a menacing serial-killer riff and follows it up with gang clapping and the kind of drums you’d hear on an upbeat 1950s tune. Seriously, what other band do you know that can make hand claps so damn unnerving?

The album closes with “Man in Cage Jack Wilson”, a track that makes brutal use of samples from the movie, including the partial log recording that’s discovered in the Event Horizon’s computers, wherein we find the lost crew of the doomed ship engaged in a murderous blood orgy, mutilating one another while their minds short circuit, unable to comprehend the grim realities of where they’ve been.

As the album ends, I am in the fetal position, unable to move or speak, eyes wide with fright. And all of this from a Christian band…

Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi

Warbling and warping like a worn-out VHS tape, Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi is a truly unsettling masterpiece. With a flair for found sounds and obscure instrumentation, BOC’s compositions have more in common with 1970s educational films than they do with modern electronic music. Rife with distorted spoken word samples likely culled from old classroom reels, these songs give me the same feeling of dread that I get when I hear carnival music out of context. It’s sinister and brooding, with a twisting narrative full of childish nostalgia and quivering atmospherics. As if that weren’t enough, the song titles are vague occult references, and the total run time of the album is 66 minutes and 6 seconds. *shivers*

Geogaddi takes the listener on a dark journey from start to finish. The opening track “Ready Let’s Go” is the musical equivalent of watching celluloid film burn in front of a projector bulb, droning and pulsing as if BOC meant to waste no time melting away the layers of reality, leaving a rusty cage of dense sound in its place. The layering on this album is one of its greatest strengths, with amorphous beats plodding along beneath the eerie, haunting melodies and “the hell was that?!” instrumentation above. A constant feeling of psychological horror hangs over the whole record, as if you’re not really hearing what you’re hearing, like a phantom image in a daguerreotype.

The third track, “Beware the Friendly Stranger”, may be familiar to you if you’ve ever seen one of David Firth’s Salad Fingers videos, most of which feature this song on an endless loop beneath the titular character’s babbling insanity. This street monkey music box leads into the next track “Gyroscope”, a song that reassures my feeling of impending doom with the notion that I am being chased by something I cannot comprehend. I mean, this music really gets under my skin.

The entire album just gets darker and darker, as if it intends to tear apart your psyche before it gives you any hope of escape. The final tracks of this album (one entitled “You Could Feel the Sky”) bring a sense of closure to the rolling terror you’ve just come through. Even though you’re now breathing easy, in the back of your mind you know something’s not quite right as the album closes with “Magic Window” – nearly two minutes of silence. Do yourself a favor and listen with a great set of headphones to really get into the right mood.

If I ever get trapped in a decaying nightmare realm a la Silent Hill, this is the music I want following me as I solve puzzles and run from inexplicable horror.

John Cage’s Complete Piano Music Vol. 1

John Cage was a genius, we know that. His avant-garde compositions range in feel from a flurry of notes that mimic the sounds of traffic to no instrumentation at all. As a composer, Cage was more concerned with feeling and sound than strict melody and harmony, describing music as a “purposeless play” and an “affirmation of life” in that we make music as a way to realize that we are alive.

Cage studied under famed composer Arnold Schoenberg, who complained that Cage would always be going up against a brick wall without any sense of harmony. Cage devoted himself to beating his head against that wall, and the results are both minimalistic and intriguing.

John Cage loved plucking the strings of a piano just as much as most people enjoy playing in the conventional manner. This technique yields otherworldly textures and hammered tones that sound like the scampering of a small, precocious creature not of this earth. On this record you’ll hear steel drums and out of tune simultaneous tones from god knows what source, and seemingly atonal passages that seem right at home with the likes of today’s noise rock pioneers. If John Cage ever held a guitar, I’m certain he loved to pluck both behind and in front of the fretted note. He would likely have enjoyed ring modulators as well!

While his music isn’t necessarily scary on its own, it’s all about context. Around this time of year, innocent sounds can take on a special meaning that might not exist over the summer, for instance. If you’ve ever driven a long dirt road in the middle of a dark Pennsylvania night, just about any music is going to be disquieting. I know; I’m from there.

What really gets me about John Cage’s compositions though, is the perceived lack of logic or timing therein. Make no mistake: I’m aware that these compositions were well thought out, but would the casual listener call this music? It’s instinctively free form and disturbing in its shambling way, like a “walker” from The Walking Dead. Notes seem to flutter by loosely until they converge on the listener, embracing the chaos of a cluttered sonic mess before exhausting themselves and drawing back. It’s both cerebral and listless.

It’s not simply the notes he chose (or rather, threw like darts at the ear) but all of the other sounds in the recordings. There’s the shuffle of clothed arms, creaking of floorboards or the shifting bodies in the distance. Metal against metal, mallets barely missing the mark, percussive striking of piano keys and the very real mechanical sounds of instruments being played all lend to the ambiance.

Perhaps it’s not simply the notes that are there, but the notes that aren’t there. Cage was no stranger to silence, and it’s not uncommon for a track to wallow in extended periods of purposed quiet, where it seems like more is happening than you’re led to believe. In his well known work, 4’33”, Cage didn’t simply intend there to be no music, but to point out that the real music of life is actually the sounds that naturally occur around us all the time.

Side note: friends of mine recently attended a recital of the works of John Cage, and 4’33” was one of the titles chosen for performance. When the time came, a lady sitting close to my friends opened – get this – a giant bag of chips, happily crunching away. When I heard about this, I laughed my ass off, knowing that John Cage would have been proud. Some concertgoers did not get the joke, I’m told.

So, I’m not intending to tell you that John Cage is the scariest man alive, but what I am saying is that his music is so nuanced and off-kilter from the norm that it elicits such a strong reaction in the listener which, under the right conditions, could be more haunting than anything else on this list.

Silent Hill 3 Soundtrack

Speaking of Silent Hill, the soundtrack to the game franchise’s third installment is immensely terrifying in its own way. If you’ve never played any of these fantastic PS2 games, I highly recommend them for fans of psychological horror, especially games 2 and 3.

It may be an obvious move to call the soundtrack of a horror game “scary”, but there are reasons well beyond the simple connection of game to music. The soundtrack is moody and produced with a pop sheen, but what makes it memorable is its rickety back beats and off-kilter vocal performances.

It’s odd for a game about a girl that gets lost in a world of rusty fences and contorted monsters to have a soundtrack full of songs about love and distance, but it actually works well with the game’s read-between-the-lines imagery. Silent Hill is renowned for its character designs, with the ghoulish denizens you face created by the fears, neuroses and sexual hangups of Heather, the game’s protagonist. You come across frail zombie-like creatures with torsos encased in a bag of flesh, likely symbolic of the teenage heroine’s struggle with her own body image. Faceless nurses await you in the hospital, each of them with a slender body and an ample bosom, which can be interpreted as the insistence of the hourglass, 36/24/36 figure upon our culture’s young women. In fact, some of the first monsters you encounter are tall man-creatures with vaguely phallic heads and arms, a reflection on being a woman in a world that pushes masculine wants and desires. Not to spoil anything, but the most terrifying revelation in the game comes when, after having fought your way through hordes of blood-crazed beasts, you meet a character called Vincent who asks, “Monsters? They look like monsters to you?” He then says it’s a joke, but WTF?!

The sounds and songs of the SH3 collection is brooding and disorienting, with the sounds of a factory contorted into mechanical percussion. Tender melodies soothe while pulsing, distorted bass rumbles beneath, the punishing sound of implicit evil looming atmospherically in the background. You hear orchestral parts soaring while looped and cut beats crumble beneath your feet much like the collapsing streets of the game’s namesake town. Pitch-shifted cries and ring-modulated tones play a vicious game of hide and seek, there one moment and gone the next. And then there are the unashamedly “rock” songs on the album, “You’re Not Here” being the most obvious. Guitars careen and drums crack while the vocalist sings about being “…strung out, addicted to you”. Even with a song like that, the sense of foreboding is in full force because the sounds you’re hearing aren’t quite right.

A good example of this can be found just about anywhere you hear vocals. For one thing, the voices on this soundtrack are almost too produced, impossibly clean and pitch-perfect. As for what they’re singing, most of the lyrics were originally written in Japanese, then translated into English with little regard for syntax or lyrical flow it would seem. It’s not that they’re bad or poorly-written lyrics at all, but they’re just, well, ‘almost there’; That’s what makes them so creepy.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: “Letter – From the Lost Days” is a song that assuredly was translated but retains an inherent vibe of nostalgia. Vocalist Melissa Williamson – who honestly has a beautiful voice – sings the story of a girl writing a letter to her future self, pleading with her older self to be happy and remember “Daddy” and “Colleen” instead of some unaddressed misfortune that happened to the girl. The song ends with multiple repetitions of the phrase, “We were put here on this earth, put here to feel joy”, the last of which is whispered sinisterly.

There are a few spoken word pieces here that are equally discordant, with the same slightly off delivery that makes them so piercing:

The world is teeming with unnecessary people
It is God’s decision that I fight
As knight of honor, as a protector of the seal
I sacrifice myself to the blood of criminals

Nah, that’s totally legit. Nothing scary there.

The rest of the record is filled with the sounds of droning monk chants, the marching of giants, and in the case of “Flower Crown of Poppy”, what is presumably the machine that they used to challenge track layin’ American folk hero John Henry. The closing tracks of the album don’t really give any sense of comfort or release from the grip of sheer terror, with the following lovely little prose poem to remind you that the way cults like the one in the game are so effective: they take seemingly innocuous religious things people have heard before, but they offer them with a twist.

In the beginning people had nothing,
Their bodies ached and their hearts held nothing but hatred.
They fought endlessly but death never came
They despaired stuck in the eternal quagmire

A man offered a serpent to the sun,
And prayed for salvation.
A woman offered a reed to the sun,
And asked for joy.
Feeling pity for the sadness that had overrun the earth
God was born from those two people.

God made time and divided it into day and night.
God outlined the road to salvation and gave people joy.
And God took endless time away from the people.
God created beings to lead people in obedience to her.

The red God Xuchilbara
The yellow God Lobsel Vith
Many Gods and Angels
Finally God set out to create paradise,
Where people would be happy just by being there.

But there God’s strength ran out and she collapsed
All the world’s people grieved this unfortunate event
Yet God breathed her last,
She returned to the dust promising to come again.

So God hasn’t been lost,
We must offer her prayers and not forget our faith.
We wait in hope for the day…
When the path to paradise will be opened.

Awesome. I’m so scared that I’m involuntarily crysturbating. Happy, Akira Yamaoka? Actually, you probably are, you sick freak! (Kidding. Well done, sir!)

The penultimate track is completely wack, though. It has possibly the most ridiculous lyrics in the known universe, and the delivery of said lyrics breaks with established tradition by also being incredibly ridiculous. The songs’s “She’s gooooooooone” lyric rivals the absurdity of Darth Vader’s insipid “NOOOOOOO!” in Revenge of the Sith. Listen to this track once for teh lulz, then delete it. You’ll be glad you did. Also, the very last one is alright, but starts with a eye-rollingly awkward, “Okay, let’s do this. One, two, three, four.”

Ugh.

Any Carnival Music, Ever

I mean, that shit is frightening.

-Michael James Adams

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