Bloodless Arches as a whole was conceptualized as an album that takes the listener through the paces of making it through a bad day. The album begins focused on personal experiences, but zooms out toward the end of the track list. "Vacant Drifters” is where one falls asleep, and by this point the focus has shifted to the loss of self, the obfuscation of identity, and poses the question: is identity - self - worth holding on to? “Wing To Collar” is the dream conjured by the experiences throughout the day, which was inspired by a recurring dream that I will recall in detail during the explanation of that song.
I originally wanted to separate the emotional/lyrical elements of these explanations from the technical/musical side, but these processes informed one another and are not easily separated. That being said, I’ll do my best to share how I made Bloodless Arches as clearly as I possibly can. I hope you enjoy the album, and I hope you enjoy reading this. Thank you for caring :)
(Click on the song titles to open the Spotify link to each one)
This track began as my first ever attempt to remix someone else’s song. It just so happens that that someone else was Bardic Form, a band that I was a huge fan of at the time and that I now play bass in (I learned how to play bass just to play in the band). I’m very happy that my love for Justin and Reece - both as friends and musicians - will be immortalized as the first thing you hear on the first track of my first album. After chopping up guitars from the song “Lethe”, I began sampling more parts from another one of their tracks, but the keys didn’t match up. Rather than transpose them, I used one of my favourite of Ableton Live’s quirky tricks: I froze the chopped up guitars as a new audio file, and then I got Ableton to listen to that audio and attempt to transcribe it into a MIDI file... which it did, albeit poorly. But that was the point! From there I quantized the pitch, adjusted the timing, and used that MIDI file as the three mallet-ish synth parts that layer on top of one-another during the song’s intro. These are reminiscent of mallet percussion instruments because they were made using a modal (physical modelling) synthesizer. Much of the background percussion elements are samples from the Talus Dome. If you don’t know about the Talus Dome, it's a modern art sculpture on the side of one of Edmonton’s major highways: The Whitemud. Edmontonions have a love/hate (mostly hate?) relationship with it, because it's a pyramid made up of giant metal balls. But let me tell you, those balls sound great! I layered in an Adam Jones inspired guitar chord, multi-tracked to make it impossible to physically replicate as one person, and some crazy noise from the Dr. Scientist Bitquest’s Delay mode. The Bitquest is a guitar pedal that’s actually all over this song. My vocals come in with:
“Counting all the endless fires
Totems heals, and arms raise higher
Shorter breath in winds expiring me
Whose nouns aren’t loud enough
Nouns aren’t loud enough
Find their place
And count all heaven’s lost
Count all heaven’s lost
Can you see
Their tide is made
Of Ocean’s blood”
The anxiety of waking up to President Trump is what initially inspired these lyrics. It seemed to be a sign of the rising influence of charlatans... Or at least, of obvious charlatans. From there, it evolved into using cult-imagery to embody the tenacity to which people seemed to want to hurt each other, to hurt themselves, and to hurt the planet.
I used Melodyne to create the three part harmony on my voice, which has a certain vocoder-type sound to it that I quite like. The artificiality of the sound suited the lyrics describing human actions far removed from the humane. The guitar fill between “expiring me” and “Meglo-Braves” was meant to match the malice described by the words, but beyond that, it is the remnant of a desire that I am still attempting to be rid of: proving to myself that I can play guitar. Much of this album explores the self, removing the self, etc, and as I was working on this music I came to the realization that in order to make something I was proud of, I had to sever the ties between my identity as a musician, and my identity as a guitarist. Before Bloodless Arches, I would write music for my primary instrument, but this album needed to be more than songs written around guitar parts, the guitar parts had to be written around the songs.
A Bitquest fill leads us into the first chorus, which immediately thins out with a synth pad whose sample rate has been reduced (similar to the automated sample reduction on the Bardic Form samples throughout the track). This leaves room for new Bardic Form samples to come through, being used as a drum kit this time. The next verse begins with a hit on my washing machine, a short delay on my vocals for a megaphone type sound, and samples of riots going on in the background. Electric guitar layers have been added to the previous samples and mallet synths. During “A change of heart””, as with “Can you see”, I added layers of thumping on my 8 string guitar at the 7th fret on strings that were tuned specifically to the chord happening at this moment. The final chorus begins with a sustained vocal note going through a guitar amp on “harmony”. The power went out when I was about to record bass on this track, but I was borrowing a friend’s fretless bass at the time, which is quite loud acoustically. I wrote the part in the dark and immediately recorded the little bass intro during that held vocal note once power had returned. Ryan Pliska (recorded at Moose Farm Studios) finally comes in on acoustic drums here. Heavily distorted, they take up a lot of the percussion real-estate, though all previous layers are now in.
In a further attempt develop an identity away from the guitar, I began writing music away from all instruments. I would park myself at Remedy Cafe on 109th st (in Edmonton) with just my laptop, Sibelius (music notation software) and my headphones. I would compose by manually inputting notes into the staves with the computer keyboard, and this is how I wrote all of Preservationist. It wasn’t until afterward that I realized that 2 out of three of the guitar parts in the beginning were physically impossible to play. But, determined to make this song happen, I learned them on my guitar that I had tuned in 5ths, and it was actually doable and pretty easy! I put the three-part guitar harmonies through Melodyne, raised their formant (vowel) and doubled the original take with these weird, digitally nasal tracks.
Away from my guitar habits - free of the tethers of muscle memory! I wrote an intro that goes:
G - - B Bb - - D G - - B Gm - - D
...which is strange, but the voice leading was strong, and led me to:
F(sus4)/Eb - - - Ab/Db - - -
for the bridge. Then we have the verse! And if you’re lost, here’s the form of the song:
Intro - Bridge - Verse - Bridge - Intro - Verse - Bridge 2 - Break down - Bridge - Extended Intro as Outro
Another goal of mine with Bloodless Arches was to take pop song formulas and contort them. I wanted music with elements that pop listeners could latch onto, things that were catchy, and even danceable at times. Believe it or not, Preservationist was the poppiest thing I had written to date!
Feeling brave from my success in making an awkward chord progression work during the blast beat intro, I kept the same focus on smooth voice-leading throughout the harmony of the verses:
Gmaj7 - - B/F# E - E7 Em7 C#m7b5 - C#7(#11) F# - - F#/E
The transition point before the breakdown is a Bbmi7b5/Ab that happens immediately after “We slip into eroded weeks”. This allowed me to transition to E major for the three part guitar harmonies. Not a key I planned on getting, but I was really into major chords sequenced in minor thirds, and minor chords sequenced in major thirds at the time.
The time signatures are meant to push the listener off balance, with the total metric map looking like this:
17/16, 4/4, 17/16, 5/4, 4/4/, 13/16, 17/16, 4/4, repeat
I wrote the vocal melody on a synthesizer and filled in the notes with lyrics afterward. I knew that I would have to sing predominantly in falsetto. My break between chest and falsetto at the time was the E above middle C (though I’m proud to say that I’ve pushed it up to F#/G after four years of trying really hard). I kept the synth line in there to add a bit more depth to my voice, and chose key moments in the phrase to accentuate the lead vocal with harmonies. I kept the robot harmonies here, but doubled them with human ones. This created a nice balance between the harshness of auto-tune-esque vocals and the warmth of all human, imperfect sounds. I opted for this mix throughout the majority of the rest of the album.
During the verse, I added a guitar part to give things a bit more momentum - a bit more pop. I used my Mesa Boogie Mark V for all guitars on this track, including this palm-muted crunchy clean riff. The keyboard part that goes on throughout the verse is a synth that’s present throughout the entire song. Again, this is a modal synthesizer. But rather than process it all in the box, I re-amped it through my guitar amp and pedalboard, adding and removing stompboxes in real time to changes the timbre. I found that the software synths had more life to them when going through my amp, keeping the amp reverb on at all times.
Lyrically, this is a breakup song. I told myself that I would never write a break-up song, especially not for Ways In Waves. However, I experienced a particularly painful parting of ways before beginning work on Preservationist, and got the idea of twisting this type of song on its head a bit. After that breakup I had the same dream three times, where I was high up in a concrete building with a room full of faceless people. This tower was connected to another via a bridge that had rubble blocking it, and looking through to the other side I could see someone I cared about... panicking, losing their minds over the inevitability of the towers' imminent collapse. And collapse they did - every time - into an endless pit. Rubble, metal, dust, decay would spread until we were all falling into nothing. The first two times I had the dream, the person alone in the other tower was a family member, the last time it was the person that I had just broken up with.
Based on this, I decided to place the lyrics of the song in that world, using the vernacular of decaying buildings to describe the end of a relationship, and to remove the romance from the equation as well. I wanted the song to be about a more universal parting of ways with someone, in whatever capacity that might be. Coming to terms with it, genuinely wishing them the best, and then going down separate paths.
That’s not at all how that relationship ended for me, but it's how I wish it had.
This track was written as a reaction to a former version of itself. All Ears was finished a year before releasing this album. I had recorded, mixed, mastered it all, but it ended up being something that I didn’t want to release into the world. The lyrics were about the worst possible version of myself, they were delivered with avarice, bitterness, and anger. That coupled with the fact that the song dragged on and on made it a chore to listen to. I couldn’t listen to it on repeat, so I started over. All that remains of that previous version are the Left to Right Hand rhythm in the keyboard part, and the lyric “All Ears”. For posterity (and to make a point) I’ll post the original lyrics here:
Six disaster calls
So much warmer
Than a cold, white home
All my feeder told
Give in less than
What they owe
If All Ears
This obviously wasn’t a reflection of who I am or what I believe, but I wanted to get into the mind of someone who thought this way in order to understand what could drive someone to such extremes. But ultimately, it was an unpleasant song, and it isn’t worth listening to. The message is not clearly conveyed, and I didn’t want to risk releasing something that a malicious person could so easily grasp on to.
When re-making All Ears, I went for something that was forcefully happy rather than forcefully negative. If Tell Us Everything is where we wake up, Preservationist is where we get lost in thoughts while laying in bed. To that end, All Ears is what I have to say to myself to get out of bed sometimes. Its a pep talk, a “fake self-love until you actually have self-love” anthem.
Pulls you down
Or cracks you up”
Two very different, but completely valid ways of reacting to a negative life experience.
“Turn it off
The world’s not gone”
Actively shut-out the negative thoughts, focus on what is immediately around you, the world’s still here.
This train of thought is interrupted by vocals that are effected to sound like they’re coming in through static, a vagrant radio-wave, or an over-zealous neuron:
“What do they want?
What can I do?”
And then an immediate reply:
“All Ears want
to comfort thoughts
Cast away the days
You worried for you”
The chorus juxtaposes the forceful positivity with the depression it opposes - passive, weak, in the background, but ever present are the artificially spoken words:
“They don’t want me, they don’t need me”
Behind a vainglorious chorus of:
“They want you
They need you
They want you
They need you”
The negativity and doubt manages to break through after the second chorus, after the build:
“What do they want?
What can I do?
Isn’t this all that I could ask for?
What is enough?
What is the mask for?
Where is the line?
Are you benign?
Do I belong to all the discord?
Who stays behind? What is this for?
All Ears closing off all around
When it stops, it all gets louder and louder...”
Not knowing what you’re worth, what good you can do, if you can make a difference, if you’re part of the problem, not trusting people... These all contributed to the feeling that I needed “All Ears” to fight for me.
Production wise, I once again re-amped the synths which were already densely layered in Ableton. The guitar chugging became a way of accentuating the rhythmic energy of the tune, and it worked way better than doubling the keyboard part (which I was doing before discovering the simpler solution to the part). Because of its simplicity, it lended itself well to being the element of the song that pushes the listener off balance. Displacing the palm-muted chugs on and off of the beat allowed me to give the illusion that the metric language of the song is more complex than it actually is. This displacement also shifted focus onto the vocals in an interesting way, where they’re the rhythmic home base of the ensemble.
The chorus is intentionally bubbly, featuring a Brian Raine choir (or two) and some original MacIntosh robot voices recorded directly from the speech function on my Mac. The guitar layers were recorded via my Axe-FX II, using a Popgate ’88 preset that I modified. The gist of the patch is that the reverb is gated and the input is heavily compressed. The second chorus has all of this plus a MIDI horn section and a kazoo choir.
After a 13/8 transitional bar, the first chorus returns to a short verse, and then to a guitar soli, which phases (metrically) over top of a melodramatic take of the verse guitar part, sifting through the following chord progression rather than C major:
Fma9omit3 - - - Bbma13 omit 3 - - - Ebmin9 - - - Gb6 - - - Ebmaj9omit 3 - - - Fmin11/Ab - - - Dbmin9 - - - Abmi11/E
Originally, Sean Sonego was the singer of Ways In Waves. “Fellow” was completely produced and recorded with his vocals on the track. I realized that I wanted to be the singer of the project, that I needed to convey the lyrics with my own voice, but Sean remains present on the background vocals he recorded for this song. The way the lyrics are constructed is a result of them being written for Sean, intended to be sung at me by him. This song was about me feeling a great deal of guilt regarding the death of Timothy Henderson. Timothy and I went to high school together in Yellowknife, played in bands together, and I was told the night before Timothy was taken off of life support that I was the inspiration behind their decision to pursue an education in music at MacEwan. Unbeknownst to me, Timothy had been dealing with demons unseen, and made an attempt on their own life, which resulted in a brain injury from which recovery was not possible. I didn’t know what was going on, but I didn’t check in, I didn’t reach out. I regret this immensely.
Timothy used they/them pronouns, if you don’t know that while listening to Fellow, it sound as if someone is referring to an individual letting down a group of people, and that is a completely valid interpretation of the lyrics. However, for me, this song is specifically how I let one particular person down. It is a reminder to always reach out, to always take the time to lift my head out from my own bubble to pay attention to those around me.
Musically, this was my first experiment with sampling myself. It was written before “Tell Us Everything” and informed much of the production process of that song. “Fellow” is essentially a remix of the previous drone-based tune that it began as. I chopped up and sampled my improvised ambient guitar parts into more percussive stabs (which Geoff Li later doubled on guitar), moved around baselines to change the context of the static harmony, and then added groove from drums samples (later doubled by Ryan Pliska on acoustic drums). In the instrumental choruses I put Ryan’s drums through a pitch shifter to create the distortion-esque soundscape that surrounds the percussion in that section. The guitar part that enters in the second chorus was recorded by plugging my guitar straight into the computer via 1/4inch to 1/8th inch adapter (inspired by Alex Robertshaw’s solo on “Get To Heaven” by Everything Everything) and fed the signal through a simulated amp head, foregoing a cabinet sim altogether. This was also my first time experimenting with creating choir vocal harmonies myself, which was frustrating at first but ended up being a sound that I really enjoyed and ended up using throughout the album.
This track began as my final assignment for my electro-acoustic music class, taught by Paul Johnston. I wrote the intro by sampling pots, pans, a stapler, my hands, foam, etc, from around my apartment, dropping the samples into Battery (a sampler plug-in) and using them to bring a poly-rhythm to life. I used Absynth to randomly generated the fuzzy, static-like synth layer that fades in and out of existence via side-chain compression. This intro, along with the first chords of the song, were all I wrote for the first version of the tune, completed in 2015. Then a few months later while in a house in Tokyo, I wrote the chords on my laptop, along with the melody, all on soft-synths. I then wrote lyrics which my friend Sean once again sang on. (Sean actually tracked the vocals himself in The Loft in the old orange CFAC MacEwan campus). The lyrics were inspired by an existential crisis I had in a sportchek. I was trying to buy shoes that were ethically made, and I realized that no matter what decision I made - whether I bought this brand, that brand, or didn’t buy any shoes at all - that I would be hurting someone, somewhere, far away from me. I took that feeling and applied it to my professional life, to my personal life... The feeling that no matter what you do, you’re making the wrong decision, that no matter what direction you chose to go in, you’re causing pain to someone.
The song was completely finished (noticing a pattern here?) with Sean on vocals, recorded, mixed, mastered. But I felt that the song had reached about 70% of its potential. I took two years to make the stop-motion music video for the song before making the final changes to it. In the video, I decided to make that moral purgatory into an actual, fully realized, physical space. The characters in the video are born into a world where no matter what they do, no matter what direction they crawl, they will be consumed by the world that birthed them.
The video inspired a new set of lyrics to be added as backgrounds to the old ones. These new lyrics were focused on the reality presented by the music video:
“Moving on with no
End in Sight
Born in lasting cold
Drought and blight
Have we lost out will
Or have we lost
The last fight?
No matter what they
Lasting out is their
Ghosts in chemistry
they’re a greed that
And from there, the production changes began. I re-recorded all vocals myself, fed the bounced stems of the intro through automated waveshaping distortion, doubled the synth chords in the verses with dry guitar chords strummed upward close to the bridge on the bridge pickup, added acoustic drums in the choruses, added background vocals intended to actual voices to the stop-motion heads of the intro to the video, as well as auto-tuned upright pianos, melodicas, and the cries of babies that transform into samples I made from a Buchla Easel emulation.
There are over 500 tracks in this song, a lot of work went into realizing the physical space of the lyrics through use of production techniques.
This song is about the fear of having kids, specifically: the fear of passing on your flaws to your children, and raising children in a world that seems to be increasingly terrible. Murray Cameron Smith and I collaborated on this track, which makes it unique as far as the tunes on Bloodless Arches go. “Fellow" was initially collaborative, with Sean Sonego and Geoff Li contributing to the song’s beginnings, but for “Hold” I would check in with Murray throughout the process to get notes from him. This track actually began with samples I took from a VCS3 synth that was at U of Ottawa, and a randomized synth arpeggio that Murray came up with on a Solina VST. He also came up with the title by using a random word generator. It was initially a placeholder title, but I wrote the line “Do I have to hold you?”, which began the theme of the the song.
I decided to apply this fear to a character for two reasons: to distance myself from the lyrics (the beginning of the album’s lens zooming out) and to explore a more dramatic series of actions that could be taken by someone experiencing the fear I wanted to talk about. In “Hold”, a man leaves his wife the morning after she gives birth to their son. He has convinced himself that, because of his flaws, that his son and wife will be better off without his toxic influence in their lives. The weight of passing on his bitterness and his pessimism, and knowing that he will die leaving his son alone to live on in our hellish modern era, are all what convince him to leave.
This is ultimately selfish, cowardly, lazy, and not an action that I condone whatsoever, but that’s the great thing about writing about a character, I can explore the extremes of these feelings and not actually do any of this to any real son of mine (no plans for that though).
One of the things that Murray pushed me to do overall, was to not to have any moment where something new wasn’t happening. Whether that was sending my vocals to a new reverb bus, putting in a granular fill, a new harmony, etc, I was striving to fill every possible space, to ask myself (or have Murray ask me) “what is the focus in this moment? could there be something new here?”. I added new synth layers on top of old ones to give more stereo interest, more modulation, more density. I recorded, re-recorded, re-re-recorded guitars through my amp with different settings, through the axe fx, through both, trying to find the perfect tone for each individual part. As with Hurting Other People, there are about 500 tracks in the Ableton Live session for Hold.
Many of those tracks are vocals, I must have produced 4 different versions of Hold, each with their own “final” comp of the vocal takes. But after repeat listens, there would always be something that jumped out at me as not being the right tone, pronunciation, or volume. Rather than delete old takes, I would often mix them in with the newer ones as final takes, or tune them to become new harmonies, and then double those harmonies with my actual voice. The decision to strip down the intro as well as the first chorus to just one track of vocals was a difficult one to make. My confidence in my singing was unsteady at the time, and I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of my voice standing alone, supported only by the bare-bones instrumental. But I’m glad I did this, it allowed the ending build to be that much more bombastic.
I cannot understate how crucial layering was to the completion of this track. It was never enough to build one synth pad from scratch, I had to make two or three, combine them together, put them each through slightly different stereo spreaders and gain stages, all to be automated to create a constant sense of movement through sonic evolution. Making “Hold” was draining, but the end result was extremely rewarding.
Completing “Hold” took a few years, “Catching Up” took two months to write, produce, and mix. This song was always called “After-hold” in my head because I knew that I wanted a song whose sound was the opposite of “Hold”’s, but whose lyrics follow that same character years after leaving his family.
Similarly to “Hold”, I took real life feeling/experiences and projected them onto this character. This time the experience I was projecting was a very strange and frightening feeling that I have only experienced twice, but both times were while working on Bloodless Arches. While experiencing very serious depression I felt that if I didn’t physically move from the place where I was sulking, that I would be hurt by myself or by something else. So I went on a walk for hours, specifically, from midnight to 8am, on the phone with a mental health hotline. I’m incredibly thankful to the woman I was speaking to on one of these nights, the conversation we had kept me going - literally. I didn’t stop walking, I felt that if I did, this feeling, this personification of everything that I hated about myself would catch up to me and hurt me.
So it was easy enough to apply that to the character from Hold.
One of the more interesting elements of “Catching Up” is the layered guitar part which plays the sustained chords during the verses of the song. There are three classical guitar takes, two modal synth takes (re-amped), and a uniquely melodyned guitar. For that last layer, I put my PRS electric-guitar completely out of tune and tapped random pitches in time with the classical guitar takes. I then took these and quantized them to the correct pitches, giving me a unique tone on every note, and an overall timbre that I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to replicate with any form of synthesis.
With the lyrics being in the third person here, told from the perspective of narrators observing the man being chased, I wanted the vocal production to be more obscure than that of “Hold”. Each of the harmonies was triple tracked, with phasing and the panning of specific frequencies on individual takes being used to intentionally obfuscate the sound stage.
Meter is once again used as a tool to throw the listener slightly off here, but specifically, in the breakdown (B section? bridge?) there are acoustic chords that are used as transitory moments between overblown, overdramatic moments. Each time these acoustics play their three chords, an 8th note is shaved off of the bar length. I used little tricks like this, like auto-tuning my roommate's chihuahua, gradually increasing the tempo of the last chorus, to create anxiety reflective of the character’s experience.
This song is about depersonalization, which is something I experienced almost every day while making Bloodless Arches. The best way I can describe this disorder is that it feels like what you’re seeing through your eyes is being played for you on a tv screen placed directly in front of your face at all times. It makes you feel like your body isn’t your own, that your actions aren’t your own, and that all makes you question whether “you” are even real or whether “you” is something else entirely. We’re back to first person here, but first person from the perspective of someone turning into a tree. This came about from looking at my hands, feeling that they were foreign to me, and not knowing how to deal with this. Fear can be brought on by this experience, but a strange sense of liberation as well. House of Leave by Mark Z. Danielewski is a huge inspiration here.
I continued to explore a lyrical technique that I’ve grown quite fond of in this song:
“Limbs were the roots I knew
Now their motions sag and
On their own as willows
Dream as a tethered ghost
when I come back to I’m
Lucid but what I see
Is a corrugated
Anachoeic end goal
Tell me I need to breathe
Where I lungs once were an
Ash Tree grows”
I intentionally wrote these lyrics so that they can have multiple meanings depending on where you think the (textual) phrase ends. For example: “Tell me I need to breathe, Where my lungs once were an, Ash Tree grows” can be read as:
Tell me I need to breathe where my lungs once were. An Ash Tree grows.
Tell me I need to breathe. Where my lungs once were an Ash Tree grows.
Lyrically, I mean for both of these to be intentional messages. The lyrics are physically organized in the booklet to showcase musical phrases, but the actual organization of ideas often intersects multiple/partial lines of text.
Musically, I wanted to support the anxiety and fear of the lyrics as well as contrast the trudging pace of “Catching Up”. The main guitar line introduced at the beginning of the track is frantic, fuzz covered, and Frank Zappa induced. I looped my choir vocals and tuned them to sound less human, added percussion from around my house to compliment and contrast the acoustic drums performed by Ryan Pliska, and used sampled loops I made from my MWFX Judder pedal as fills between phrases in the verses. Notably more guitar driven, the pre-chorus veers away from the frantic bass line toward constant 8th notes, shifting focus toward the new layers of synths. One of these layers is an FM synthesizer I made in MAX MSP. Coming off from a recent obsession with playing my electric guitar tuned in 5ths, I created a synthesizer that uses 5ths as its only ratio option. even though weeks of work went into making that instrument, it only finds itself on this one part of this one song… That’s just how things go sometimes I suppose! In the chorus, I used a grand piano that I sampled using my left hand to mute the strings as my right hand played them. However, I removed the attack of each transient, creating a more ambient texture. The point of this was to support the thesis of the lyrics in the chorus via harmonic support devoid of its real life qualifiers.
Interestingly enough, this track contains the only real “guitar solo” of the album. Supported by a transitory harmonic interlude, keyboards played through pedals and amps that where later chopped up and iterated upon further, this guitar solo is the combination of about 20 or so different takes where I improvised without learning the harmony of the song. I found that although I made more mistakes this way, but that I also took more risks and ended up being less precious about any ideas I had come up with while playing. Similarly to tuning the guitar in 5ths, it was a way of liberating me from my musical knowledge.
Just as “Catching Up” was a response to “Hold”, “Vacant Drifters” is a continuation of the themes in “Artifacted Living”. As I was feeling my sense of self become more distant, I began wondering if this could actually be something beneficial to myself and others. Without the concerns of my self, my ego, would I be better suited to help other people? to help our planet? With the state of the world as it currently is, is what’s necessary to save the environment simply the abandonment of self?
I pictured myself and one other person on a raft, floating on an endless ocean of polluted water, while I come to the conclusion that I will completely disassociate. This conclusion drives the other passenger mad, while it provides me with a sense of tranquility, enough to fall asleep to.
I don’t mean to say that this solution of abandonment of self is one that I have settled on, but it's a thought that hasn’t left me since writing this song.
“Vacant Drifers” was the last track that I wrote and recorded for the album, fitting giving that it is essentially the conclusion to the long, terrible day that the track list up to this point is meant to embody. “Tell Us Everything” can be seen as waking up, but feeling too overwhelmed to get out of bed. “Preservationist” is reflecting upon the failure of a recent relationship, and “All Ears” is the forced positivity that gets us on our feet.
The first two chords of “Vacant Drifters” were originally written as an outro for “Artifacted Living”. The latter was written the same way that “Preservationist” was: with mouse and keyboard in a public space. I used software FM synthesis (specifically, Ableton’s “Operator”) to create the opening harmonic groundwork, and used heavily side chained, inharmonic modal synths patches drenched in reverb to act as rhythmic build up/textural complexity.
From here, the decision to sing in a lower register was made. I’ve worked very hard to push my voice’s range upward as someone who naturally sits in the baritone/bass range. I like the way that higher voices sit in a mix, I generally find the higher register of my own voice to be more compelling than my low register. This informed my decision to place my vocals lower, the lyrics are spoken from the point of view of someone who has abandoned themselves. Therefore the melody should not begin with the intensity or interest of “All Ears” or “Hurting Other People”.
I hired my friend Amy Nicholson to play cello on this piece with the purpose of getting her to double the melody in the instrumental build at the end of the song. I also combined multiple takes of her improvising over the ending to help build the climax of the album, which for me, is the end of this song. Ryan Pliska also improvised over the end, and I simply panned my two favourite takes of his hard left and hard right. I added more and more layers on synths on top of once another and performed the final arpeggiated sequence on a midi controller.
This song is the dream that inspired the album as a whole including the album cover and name. The dream was short, but recurred three separate times. I would see a dead pigeon laying on a sidewalk as people passed by. I would see footsteps from the body’s point of view, the body from the peoples’ point of view, hear the ambience of the busy street, and feel the lack of any recognition that was given to the corpse.
Lyrically, Part I transitions from the washed out dream world I often find myself in to the more concrete setting of Part II, which focuses on the story of the bird. I came up with this story because I felt that this animal deserved to be remembered for more than its death. I wanted to give it a life through narrative, even though I understand that it was never real to begin with.
I quite like the lyrics to Part II, it was incredibly difficult to write, I would take late night walks coming up with phrases from the point of view of a bird. I would ask myself: how would a bird understand street lights?
“Sky’s lights in
eggs hang on
steel trees on
fake stone pyres”
Where the bird comes from - the forest - everything is alive. How would it see an artificial structure such as a bridge? Something without life, imposing upon its transition from life in the forest to life in a city?
“Bloodless Arches loomed
Evading Everything I knew
Here all the shrieking made it hard
to feel my path was catered to”
The album cover can be interpreted in many ways, but one of the ways I think about it the most is that… To comfort the bird, I wanted to show it a human-made construct that it could understand, one that could comfort it. However this attempt to do good results in the conception of a discomforting bridge that is made from flesh. Creating a bird, a living thing, out of non living material - metal wire - was meant in part to show how the people walking past the pigeon didn’t see it as something that had ever been worth the value of a living being. It is meant as the antithesis of a comforting gesture, regardless of how successful that gesture was. The front cover and back cover are meant to be opposites of one another.
In some ways the cover is meant to show how I felt that trying in life, placing value on things, caring about myself and others, could feel pointless at times. How detached I felt from the real world was represented by how attached and obsessed I became with a short dream about an imaginary dead animal.
I would be disingenuous if I denied my desire for more compassion toward animals, particularly when reading into the lyrics of this song. Since writing “Wing To Collar” I have removed animal products from my life entirely. People around me challenged my views in a respectful way, but ultimately it was stories of compassion and years of contemplation/self-reflection that persuaded me to choose this for myself. I hope that this song helps inspire feelings of compassion toward animals in the lives of the people who hear it.
Speaking of the music now, it was originally a piece written for two vibraphones, cello, electric guitar tuned in 5ths, bassoon, and viola. I wrote the piece by ear, which is quite unusual for me, but tuning my guitar in 5ths reinvigorated my love for the instrument. Coming from a piano background, what originally made me love the guitar was that I didn’t quite know what notes I was playing. I could play by ear, by feel, and by using shapes. This allowed the majority of my thinking to be centred around expressive decisions when writing rather than theoretical ones. This feeling of wonder went away once I had learned to read notation on the instrument.
Playing with the guitar in 5ths allow for a fully symmetrical fingerboard, meaning that the major third between G and B does not interrupt the symmetry of chard and scale shapes. With this, writing by ear was easy, and I continue to refuse to learn what notes I’m playing in 5ths! What’s so great to me about “Wing To Collar” is that I can’t tell you what a single chord is in the song because I honestly have no clue what is happening theoretically... and I don’t want to know.
If you got to the end of this, thank you so much for reading and listening. It feels so great to have this album out in the world, it represents four years of hard work and perseverance and wouldn’t exist without the support of my friends and family.