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Part 4: Normalized (2002-2003)

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In the fall of 2002, my Echoplex work reached a stage where I felt compelled to document it with a serious CD release. For my money, Normalized was where the new Echoplex approach I’d been pursuing really came into musical maturity. And just as the making of the CD represented the point where that approach started to stand on its own as music, so too does this particular page go beyond Echoplex-specific terminology. So the commentary for this section details each track from the album in two ways: in-depth Echoplex geekery, and less loop-oriented, more general conceptual chin-stroking.

Normalized was assembled from a series of live improvs. The performance rig for the live solos was one Echoplex, controlled with a single Digitech PMC-10 MIDI footpedal, into a tube guitar amp, with only built-in spring reverb as an occasional effect. There was no drum machine being used as an auxilliary MIDI controller, and I’d stopped using the standard EDP footpedal by this point. I’d also taken the inspiration I’d gotten from 8th-quantization in the LoopIV upgrade and gone into the woodshed with it. By this point, I’d basically stopped using quantized Replace, and was doing all of the rhythmic punch-ins unquantized on my own steam. (“Preacher Man” is the one exception to this, and it clearly has a different rhythmic feel than the rest of the album.)

Assembling the record into its final form was a process ofpracticing, critiquing, and honing improvisations across several weeks, sorting through dozens and dozens of takes, and trying to find a shape for the album. When it finally materialized in late 2003, the CD had 18 tracks, 73 minutes, and a form that owed more to literature and cinema than to vinyl records and CDs. Normalized is arranged in a three-act narrative structure: exposition, conflict, and resolution. (A hint to this effect can be seen in the back-cover track listing for the record, which divides the song titles into the three different sections.)

Normalized also saw a new development in my Echoplex use: three live EDP improvisations were used as foundations for what became studio-based compositions. For these three tracks, new parts were written and recorded around the Echoplex improvs, which were themselves often edited and chopped after the fact for these more composed songs. (The solo performances themselves were left untouched for the most part; a handful of edits were made to some of them, and these are detailed in the individual song entries below.) The entries for these three tracks include mp3 downloads of the original source improvs they started from.


The Proposition

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Looping Notes: 

Of the three produced tracks on Normalized, “The Proposition” is unique in the sense that it uses melodic material in the original solo as a primary compositional seed. The off-the-cuff pentatonic melody in the improv (along with the “answer” line overdubbed shortly afterwards) appear as the main themes for the chorus section of the tune, and both lines were embellished with overdubs during the post-performance production.

Think Piece: 

“The Proposition” might seem, at first glance, like an unusual choice to open an album of angular, glitchy, Echoplex solos. It’s a stark, moody, melodic, and very slightly tongue-in-cheek number, which follows a pop-song structure almost to the letter. Listener reaction to this one is been mixed; some people single it out as a favorite, while others wonder what it’s doing first on the album.

But the purpose behind opening Normalized with “The Proposition” is to frame the entire CD in a certain way. Normalized is not ultimately “about” flipped-out, glitchy live looping chops. There’s a lot of that on the record, but that technique is a means to an end. As far as this album goes, that end is to document how a guitarist, raised on a healthy dose of techno-pop, dance music, and hip-hop, ended up trying to play that music on, and through, his instrument. It’s an album about filtering post-DJ ideas about music through a “traditional” instrumentalist’s actual playing, as opposed to the other way around (i.e. taking live playing and then chopping it up in a sampler or sequencer, as is so often the case).

So “The Proposition” opens the record with a literal proposition to the listener: Before any real-time technological cleverness, improvisational acumen, or conceptual overdose, Normalized is first and foremost an avante-garde party record. This first tune is the most overtly funk-based track on the record, and its opening placement is meant to suggest that the listener approach the whole CD (and particularly the first “act” of the album, which presents this angle most directly) from that point of view.

There’s another way in which this track is a “proposition” for the record as a whole, as well. The arrangement of the tune keeps building layers as it progresses: first the basic “drum” groove enters and establishes itself; then melody guitars come in; then rhythm guitars start fleshing out the arrangement; then a bass line drops. The final chorus has all of this plus harmonized counter-melodies and quasi-string atmospherics in the upper register.

What’s interesting about this in relation to the overall album is that, even though “The Proposition” is not a live looped solo track, its arrangement parallels the looping process in its most basic form – an idea is stated, and then newer ones are added on top of each other while the older layers continue to play underneath. So the arrangement of the tune, on a “macro” level, functions as a representation of the general approach taken for the live solos that comprise the majority of the album.

Finally, all conceptual baggage aside, I’ll paraphrase Mike Keneally: If there’s a hit single on the album, this is it, so I put it first, just like at Motown.


Solitaire (Version One)

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Looping Notes: 

“Solitaire” demonstrates the basic approach heard in most of the Echoplex solos on the album, by taking an initial loop and then developing it across several different loop locations, switching back and forth between different stages of development for a structural effect. A number of different concepts and approaches were tried during the improv tracking, and most of the ones which ended up on Normalized were approached with the objective of capturing a composed, spontaneously-structured sound, using loop copying to generate an “instant theme-and-variation” form. “Solitaire” ends up being a prime exacmple of that approach.

  Think Piece: 

Just about every musician, at any given time, has a collection of riffs or licks that they’ll play a lot, whether consciously or otherwise. During the process of recording the improvisations for Normalized, certain musical ideas would show up repeatedly without my having been aware of it during the performances. In particular, the combination of a certain staccato fingerstyle groove and a sparse, octave-based melody appeared in several different takes, even in improvisations which were very different in terms of tempo, key, or overall feel.

Rather than shy away from including different improvs with overlapping material, I decided to acknowledge these recurring musical elements by giving them a common title. “Solitaire” was an apt metaphor for solo looping, particularly since the first version of that tune is also the first Echoplex solo to be heard on the album. With its uptempo, energized feel, it also helps establish the overall plot of the first third of the record.


One Way Street

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Sensitive Skin

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Looping Notes: 

“One Way Street” and “Sensitive Skin” are almost identical in structure and development: using Unrounded Multiply and SUS-Insert in Stutter mode to expand a short loop length out until a groove emerges, and then developing that groove with loop copying, different overdubs and replacements, and finally extensive use of loop windowing. (As two halves of a single live performance, it’s interesting that the same developmental approach shows up in each “tune,” and that the tempo of “Skin” is almost exactly twice that of “One Way.”)

Windowing makes its first appearance on the album here, and is responsible for a large chunk of the development throughout the latter half of each “tune” in the performance. Sometimes people ask if I’ve considered using sampled or programmed beats in conjunction with my live Echoplex loops, but this performance gives good examples of why I like having all of the percussive elements come from the guitar. “Sensitive Skin,” in particular, has a very organic ebb and flow in the way that the addition of certain elements into the loop (via the Replace function) cover up previously-overdubbed percussion parts. To my ears, this lets the performance breathe and evolve a lot more than it would with pre-programmed drum patterns pounding away underneath. (To say nothing of the myriad issues of syncing the EDP with a drum module, amplifying the drums sounds, calling up pre-programmed beats and/or programming them on the fly, and trying to fluidly integrate a seperate sound element musically and visually into a live improvised performance…)

Think Piece: 

“One Way Street” and “Sensitive Skin” are two parts of a single continuous performance. About halfway through the improv, the music clearly changes direction, fragments, and then reforms around a different rhythmic feel and key center. Listening back after the fact, this mid-performance shift absolutely sounded like a different “tune,” so a seperate title and CD marker placed halfway through the performance was used to designate it as such.

This is the point where the album kicks into full speed. It’s the first spot where the full sonic range of the solo guitar starts getting exploited (thanks to some bass lines and kick-drum-style string percussion), and contains some of the CD’s most relentless barrage of sheer sonic information. In spite of the sensory overload, though, this is about as close to straight-ahead funk or hip-hop as the live Echoplex solos on the album get, and this performance’s placement serves to consolidate those elements as the dominant feel for the first “act” of the album.


Private Allies

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Looping notes: 

“Private Allies” marks a change of Echoplex use on the album in several ways. For one thing, it only uses one loop for the entire duration of the performance, and all of the development is “linear” – that is, starting in one stage of development, and ending in another stage within the same loop, without ever referring back to previous versions of the performance by copying loops and switching between them.

Further differentiating “Private Allies” is the length of its loop, which is quite a bit longer than any individual loop length that’s been heard in previous performances. This of course means that any information in that loop will take longer to cycle around before being heard again, and that the development of the overall performance, based as it is upon the single loop, will evolve at a slower rate. All of these elements combine to lend the track a more hypnotic, less frenetic quality, and helps ease the album down a notch or two from what’s come before.

“Private Allies” is also the first EDP solo on the album to appear in an edited form. The track as it appears on the CD is part of a longer original improvisation, as the opening fade-in and hard cut-off at the end might suggest. It’s also the only Echoplex solo on the entire album that contains any edits within the body of the track itself; in this case, it was mainly a few extra static repetitions of the loop within the original performance which I took out after the fact.

  A think piece: 

The fifth proper track slows things down, both in terms of tempo and the density of information in the performance. After the one-two punch of “One Way” and “Sensitive Skin,” I wanted to move the record into a less intense zone. (Aside from the obvious aspects of tempo and arrangement, the fade-in at the very beginning of this track literally helps ease the listener into the tune, particularly as it’s the first track on the album that opens in such a way.)

The title is partially a reference to the more subdued and introspective nature of the performance, and partially a tip of the hat to Public Enemy. “Private Allies” reminds me of bits from It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – the overall groove and bassline are vaguely reminiscent of “Don’t Believe the Hype,” and the more angular melodic fragments in this track (particularly in the second half) make me think of the screechy hooks in “Night of the Living Bassheads” or “Rebel Without A Pause.”

Now: if all of this sounds like hopelessly narcissistic pretention for a white guy from Iowa with a graphite guitar and a digital looper, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. This improv wasn’t intended as a Public Enemy homage at the time, and I wouldn’t expect fans of the group to immediately hear this performance and make a connection with that album. But for me, having listened to Nation of Millions probably as much as I’ve listened to any record by any artist, the experience of hearing that aesthetic coming back 14 years later, filtered through a live performance on an electric guitar, gets close to the heart of what the entire album means.


Sidewinder

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Looping notes: 

The opening of “Sidewinder” encapsulates my obsession with the notion of “a loop” as a dynamic technical starting point, rather than a fixed musical result. There’s an awful lot of reversing, replacing, expanding, contracting, and otherwise spontaneous sculpting of the initial loop going on here. All of this would be pretty meaningless, though, if it didn’t lead somewhere, and I like the way this performance slowly emerges from the primordial goo, to eventually solidify into the stark, skittering groove that underpins the body of the track.

Developmentally, this is a return to multiple-loop performance, though the variations between different loops is more subtle than the mutliple-loops solos heard earlier on the record. The fade here is post-performance, although the actual live performance ended just after the fade-out ends.

  The think piece: 

Shifting in rhythmic reference from the late ’80s to the early 2000’s, “Sidewinder” reminds me of a sort of mutant post-Timbaland or Neptunes approach to grooving. Again, not a conscious move at the time, and (also again) maybe too great a leap for some listeners to make. This track also makes what’s probably the most musically direct connection to the actual sound of turntablism on the record; the rapid and percussive changes in direction (likely done using SUS-Reverse MIDI commands) gets within striking range (or at least chin-stroking range) of a stylus and needle.


Dark Amber

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Looping notes: 

The technical origin of “Dark Amber” is based on using an Unrounded Multiply to impose a new, strict rhythm against a free-time, rubato loop. The initial loop here is a very abstract affair, with a lot of glitching via Replace, SUS-Insert, Reverse, and Half-Speed. The percussion groove that ultimately comes in was played completely independently of the original loop length; I simply depressed the SUS-unrounded multiply button on the downbeat of the new groove, released it exactly two bars later, and then listened to the results.

This technique means that a lot of unexpected rhythmic relationships in the original loop can start to materialize when a new groove is imposed onto it. In “Dark Amber,” once the strict rhythm takes shape (and the first half of the pattern has been excised from the loop), the previously arythmic glitches have become a 16th-note bassline underneath the muted-string percussion. This sort of serendipitous rhythmic relationship happens a lot when using Unrounded Multiply, and it’s intriguing to see how happenstance rhythmic figures can suddenly emerge from what was a “free time” texture.

  The think piece: 

This is the closest that Normalized gets to downtempo or trip-hop territory, and in that regard is an appropriate close to the first and most straight-ahead third of the record. It’s some of the sparsest and most subdued material on the record, and I particularly like the sheer sound of this track. Most of it was performed in “half-speed” mode in the Echoplex, which to my ears gives it an almost vinyl-esque, low-fi quality. It was also an 11th-hour addition to the album, discovered amongst a pile of previously-rejected performances. It serves to wind down from the onslaught of the first third of the record, as well as providing a breath before things get a lot more agitated.


Interference

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Looping notes: 

Of the three post-produced Echoplex cuts on Normalized, “Interference” is the least heavily edited from a performance point of view. Aside from a few intro bars being cut out (and the intro itself being pasted, in reverse development, onto the coda of the track), most of the original Echoplex improv is intact in the final album form. The shape and development of the initial EDP solo appealed to me a lot – it almost held up as a completely solo track, to my ears – so the main compositional thrust for “Interference” was to find parts that could complement the arc of development in the original improv, as well as composing parts that could fit around the Echoplex track without obscuring too many of the details that make it come alive.

  The think piece: 

The second part in a traditional three-act structure is typically where the plot start getting complicated or conflicted. “Interference” takes that to heart: if Normalized is an avant-garde party record, then this is the point where the party starts getting seriously strange. This is the second track on the album to feature overdubs and post-performance composition, and it’s probably my favorite of the three produced cuts.

In terms of its construction, it’s not unlike “The Proposition,” with angular melodies wrapping around a source Echoplex improvisation which fills the rhythm-section role for the track. But “Interference” is a much more bizarre track, aesthetically and stylistically, with elements of dancehall, drum & bass, IDM, and psychedelia mashed together. In that regard, it very much sets the basis for the second act of the CD as being “the weird one,” just as “The Proposition” establishes the first act as “the funk/hip-hop one.”


Solitaire (Version Two)

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Looping Notes: 

Like its earlier version, the second appearance of “Solitaire” on the album is relatively basic from an Echoplex perspective: straightforward verbatim recording of a phrase to begin things, with no redefining of cycle lengths, and little if any windowing. Also like its earlier version, this is very much a case study of the “spontaneous composition” school of improv, coming very much courtesy of loop copying between four different loops. To me, this track is one of the most successful on the album with regards to coming across like a true development of recurring compositional ideas, rather than sounding like a linear abstract improvisation or jam.

  Think piece: 

Whereas “Solitaire (Version One)” is an uptempo affair; “Version Two” is darker, moodier, and more confrontational. So the differences between the two versions of “Solitaire” underscore the differences between the first two parts of the album as a whole. This is also the first spot on the record that has a fairly overt rock element to it, which is perhaps a bit surprising on an album built entirely off of six-string solidbody electric guitar. I personally hear some hints of Afrobeat in the overall groove here, but even I have to admit that may be wishful thinking as much as anything else.


Intruder

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Looping notes:

The intro which sets up the basic groove (in an uncharacteristic 12/8 meter) is pure Unrounded Insert action, and a good example of the way that the Stutter interface mode allows the EDP to “stretch” the existing material in a loop with SUS-Insert, rather than completely overwriting the old material with the new additions (as is the case with the Loop interface mode). As with many of the other tracks on the album, loop copying turns what might otherwise have been a strictly linear improv into something more resembling a pre-conceived structure. The granular ending is SUS-Unrounded Multiply, tapped quickly enough to redefine the loop length to a handfull of milliseconds.

  The think piece: 

The stretch of the record from the beginning of “Intruder” through to the end of “Preacher Man” was conceived as a sort of “IDM Suite” in my mind: a continuous stretch of oddness, with each track running straight into the next with no real breaks between one another. Charles Morogiello once referred to my music as “freaky-funk,” and this particular stretch is about the freakiest the album gets.

I like the brevity here, too. A lot of free improv takes a long time to get going, and then spends a lot of time hanging around once it gets there. So I dig an off-the-cuff improv that has some conceptual unity (and a sense of humor, no less) that manages to get from start to finish in less than two minutes. (Rejected working title: “Car alarm”.)


Off The Grid

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Looping notes: 

A hard edit opens the track – the first time an excerpted performance is presented in such a manner on the album, and a reinforcement of the more angular aspect of the second act of the record. As the title says, breaking out of the strict rhythmic “grid” of a consistent loop time is the name of the game here. As is usual for that kind of thing, it’s SUS-versions of Unrounded Multiply and Insert which stretch the loop length into different grooves. (There’s a point fairly early on where the entire loop length gets redefined down to one quarter note of the original length, and then immeditately stretched back out to just slightly slower than the previous length).

  The think piece: 

If the party started getting weird with “interference,” then “Off The Grid” is where too many drinks have been had, and the shouting and shoving begins. The title’s not a reference to living independently of modern conveniences, but to the ways the performance breaks out of strict time, disintegrates, and reassembles itself into a different groove. The final stretch of this one, with its “apocalyptic house” beat, is one of my favorite parts of the whole album.


Hammerhead

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Looping Notes:

 Like both versions of “Solitaire,” “Hammerhead” is fairly traditional in looping approach: it respects its preliminary loop lengths, and I don’t believe there’s windowing to speak of. It also loops the opening phrase verbatim, though it goes through a number of rapid permutations before arriving at the signature lick for the tune. Also of note here is the use of Undo at the end of the track, which scrolls back through the layers of that signature lick far enough to erase the percussive overdubs, helping to wind the performance down at its end. (Note to self: do that more often.)

  The think piece: 

Punk looping. This performance was almost too brutal for my liking initially. But it’s ended up becoming a favorite of mine, and when I think of the album as a whole, “Hammerhead” is the track that plays in my head more than any other one. Metaphorically, this is a 1977 safety-pin-through-the-nose to the ambient looping paradigm’s arena rock ubiquity. Thematically, this is the point in the party when things start getting smashed up. Realistically, this track alone has probably already lost me one or two art gallery gigs. (Rejected working title: “Ugly Stick.”)


Preacher Man

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Looping notes:

 As an Echoplex solo, “Preacher Man” is unique to Normalized in a couple of ways. First and foremost, it’s the only performance on the whole record that used the (in)famous 8th-quantized replace trick. Every other track on the album was performed with Quantize turned off, and to my ears the presence of 8th-quant here lends the track a particularly tribal and hypnotic quality.

It’s also the only cut on the album with no actual live guitar in the performance here. The DAT tape started rolling after I’d already built up four separate loops and had decided to record what was already there. So the stretch of music as it appears on the CD was performed without my laying a finger on the guitar; I simply turned on the DAT machine, and then spent the next few minutes switching between, and manipulating, the material I’d built up in the Echoplex just prior to starting the recording.

Windowing and Undo both play a big part in the development of the material in the second half. The fact that the entire first half of the track is simply switching between four different loops, without changing any of them, helps to reinforce the melodic aspects of each loop, and also increases the effectiveness of deconstructing that material later on through windowing and undo. The beginning and ending points as they appear here are edits, but not major ones. The track on the CD starts on the first full downbeat after the tape started rolling, and ends right before the loop was deconstructed beyond recognition in performance with the Undo function.

  Think piece: 

Sequenced on the album almost as a catchy good-cop reward to the listener for enduring “Hammerhead”s bad-cop torrent of abuse, “Preacher Man” kind of sits alone on the record. It was one of two solos recorded prior to the main sessions for the album (the source performance for “Interference” was the other one, and they were both played live to DAT, probably in August of 2002). A hint to that effect comes from the basic sound of the guitar on those two tracks, whic is substantially different from the rest of the EDP solos on the album.

“Preacher Man” is also probably the “hookiest” and catchiest of the raw live solos on the record. The glitchiness of the different loops here has a particularly melodic quality, which is reinforced by both the absence of live guitar, and the almost vocal-esque “speaking in tongues” sound of the EDP. (Rejected working title: “Witch Doctor”.)


Deject

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Looping notes:

I generally don’t like soloing over loops, but this one works for me. Like “Intruder,” it’s both quite short and quite composed-sounding, with multiple loops helping once again to create a theme-and-variation effect. By placing it at the beginning of the third part, it give some indication that the “regular” guitar is going to be asserting itself more from here on out. Aside from being unusually short, it’s also uncommonly understated as far as the EDP solos on this album go. In that regard, it also functions as a calm before the storm of the remainder of the record…

  Think piece: 

Three-act structure says the third act is the resolution, and the final third of “Normalized” deals with trying to resolve the numerous issues raised on the record: funk versus rock, hip-hop versus glitch/IDM (or vinyl versus laptop), “popular” structure and grooves versus avant-garde deconstruction and experimentalism; electronic music versus organic music; looped guitar versus “regular” guitar. “Deject” opens the third act of Normalized, and it embodies a lot of these dualities, if simply by virtue of being the first Echoplex solo that features some extended and straightforward guitar soloing. In that way, it’s indicative of the final third of Normalized containing the highest amount of unlooped guitar, as well.


Seismic

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Looping notes: 

Echoplex-wise, one of its defining traits for “Seismic” is the ongoing dialogue between the live guitar and the Echoplex material. The focus manages to keep shifting between the loops and the live playing, each influencing and transforming the other, without the performance turning into a “solo over the static loops” situation at any point. The intro once again uses SUS-Insert to expand the initial loop out to its eventual foundation form, but this may be the only track on the album that uses SUS-insert in Loop mode rather than Stutter mode. You can hear the difference this makes in the first several seconds of this track, as the hard cutoff between the old material and the new stands in contrast to the more “stretched” sound that Stutter mode imposes. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that likely enhances the particularly confrontational sound of this improvisation. The fade-out that occurs shortly after the “earthquake” moment is the only post-performance edit here.

  A think piece: 

“Seismic” was one of the very last things recorded for the album, and it might be my favorite EDP solo I’ve ever recorded. Performing this track felt like six minutes of hitting the bull’s eye after having spent almost a year re-learning how to shoot. Stylistically, it’s about as ambient as a jackhammer, so it also represents a definitive reason for why that year-long journey was undertaken in the first place. My final example of dubious connection-making here will be that it reminds me a bit of Miles Davis’ mid-’70s band (the storming track that opens both “Dark Magus” and “Pangea,” in particular.)


Rockhouse

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Looping notes:

The source improv for “Rockhouse” underwent the heaviest editing of the three solos used in the produced cuts. There were a handful of sections within the overall improv that particular caught my ear, so those were extracted and used as foundations for building upon. There’s still quite a bit of variation within those bits, though, and there’s more evolution happening in the EDP performance underneath the melodies than might be initially apparent.

  A think piece:

The third and final produced track on the album was also the most challenging one to complete. There’s nothing stark or sparse about the original Echoplex improv, or the various parts that were composed around it afterwards: it’s pretty much wall-to-wall guitars, so finding sonic room for all of the different parts was a demanding task. The final mix reminds me a bit of the fuzzy sensory assault of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat record, while the “B” section call-and-response melodies are a pretty blatant Fela rip. I know what I think the last 30 or 40 seconds of this track sounds like, but that’s all I’ll say about that.


Normalized

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(No looping on this one, so…) A think piece: 

The song “Normalized” was actually written in very early 2001, so it predates the album proper, as well as my return to the Echoplex late in that same year. This is the only track on the record with no looping, so in that regard the title of the song took on an extra layer of meaning. It’s also a live guitar solo, and as such was meant to put the previous hour’s worth of glitchy guitar loops into perspective… not least of all in the way that the solo guitar you here on this performance was the same guitar responsible for every other sound on the entire record.

In relation to the “plot” of the album proper (which was never literally “scripted” as such, but which revealed itself after the fact), this might be the point where we’ve left the party, wandering home down empty streets, the onslaught of events from the previous night echoing in our head as the first light of the morning starts creeping into view.

 

Beast With Two Backs

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Looping notes: 

“Beast With Two Backs” opens with a power chord subjected to serious SUS-Insert and Replace action, and goes through a fair amount of expansion and contraction before it hits its main tempo about a minute or so into the performance. It’s also a “single-loop” performance; there’s no loop copying at work here, so the whole improv is based on linear development rather than a theme-and-variation approach. That sort of form seems to complement the loose vibe of this track, and I like the way it languidly eases the album to a close.

  Think piece:

Hearing this improvisation back after it had been recorded, it struck me as having a distinct album-closing quality to it, and to me it’s an effective summation of what the record is about as a whole. It’s also a bit looser and “lazier,” in terms of structure and feel, from most of the previous tracks, and certainly from most of the other Echoplex solos on the album. Unlike the relentless, frenetic onslaught of much of the rest of the album, this one takes its time in developing, and lets its various permutations sit and groove for a while before fidgeting into a new shape.

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