“Bought it! This is really good. Perfect relax & reflect music. Thanks, Benedict” Torusflow
The Stepper Story Evolution
This story sort-of evolved backwards. I started with the outcome and then filled in the way there. Here’s how it all came to be:
The Star-Stepper always looked like Rod Stewart on the cover of “Atlantic Crossing”. Not exactly fashionable but the heart wants what the heart wants. Besides Rod is/was a great singer so all credit is due. “Star-Stepper” made it through more re-writes than any piece I have ever written. The first couple were me but then I played it to Teacher (see below) and he really liked the ideas but not how they came together. I was terrified he’d make me drop the truly absurd de-tuned, octave-shifting lead that just went blart-blart but he laughed and helped me make it sit better with the more well-tempered claviers. I already realized I couldn’t progress the idea as a dance piece so I let melodies develop till I have the most complex piece I have ever written. The “orchestral” version (actually synth sounds which are versions of one patch called “Articulation Matriculation”) shows that off (despite being a poor piece in itself). Its like the mish-mash piece made of all the themes that sometimes sits over the end credits of a low budget movie.
Second track written was “Sometimes Starfighter” and that really owes to the rather derivative video game cash-in movie “The Last Starfighter”. The movie wasn’t that good (or perhaps even good at all) but the idea of my Star-Steppers getting engaged in conflicts as they move around the universe is too tempting to pass up. All too likely as well because we like a good war, despite protestations to the contrary. The theme here is of isolation in the midst of wide-scale activity. Like Star-Stepper this started as a dance piece but couldn’t survive that way and had many edits and teacher-driven tweaks.
“Steppers Cathedral” came next and that was really just a stained-glass sort of image.
In some ways “Solar Generator” & “Life In Orbit” don’t advance the theme of the story but every story has it’s canvas and these pieces show some of that. Suns are the drivers of our galaxies and planets. Everything is in orbit of the stars we depend on.
“Away” was quite simply a similar idea to “Deep Step” and in the end they moved together on the track listing. “Away” was going to be the final track but in the end as the story drew in the concepts from “The Long Earth” books written by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter I had to transition from the Earth-Stepping to Star-Stepping and these pieces provided the pivot points.
“Legend” started as an untitled piece based around a huge bass sound and busy drums that owes a lot to early Electronic Body Music. Then I added the “Legend of the Wobble” narration which is a blatant nod towards Richard Burton’s role in the “War Of The Worlds” record. This voice is actually an online text reader. The two parts became separated and then “Legend” lost a lot of its beatiness so I could feel happier with it as an album closer – this is still more Space Music than a Disco record after all.
Once I fully accepted that “The Long Earth” was on-board I needed to write to that but I went off-topic straight away by writing a piece that I named after book one of Julian May’s “Saga Of The Pliocene Exile” series, “The Many-Imagined Lands”. The story of modern humans escaping in to the Plasticine era only to find advanced alien beings has not left me, even after many decades. I think the two series have resonances and will probably sit side by side in many collections so no-one is likely to be too offended. Musically I had to write something that was Berlin School flavored and this was it.
To pull myself back to “The Long Earth” I wrote “Welcome To The Universe” as I needed an opener and then “The Home-Made Device” came out as a Synth-Pop piece. Both keepers.
Now in many ways it wasn’t as simple as this article suggests as it wasn’t till around “Welcome To The Universe” that I really started to be able to hear a finished album. The moment I had “Star-Stepper I felt I had something important that had to be developed but I kept wondering if I had written an hour of rubbish or if I had written something wonderful. I kept listening but not getting any clarity on that. I then tried re-arranging the running order in a way that initially felt wrong (and my partner said to put Legend at the end) and I had something that sounded like art. A few more tweaks here and there and I knew I had it. It may not topple “Thriller” from the sales records but it is something I am proud of.
Space + Dubstep
Star-Stepper came about as I was casting about for something to do. I had done some reading on Dubstep to attempt to understand how it worked, in hope I could make my peace with it. I didn’t really manage that but I decided to attempt to merge some of the tropes of this style with my Space Music. Space-Step sounded dumb but Star-Step has a resonance and then I saw Rod striding from place to place in my mind. Here’s my take on Dubstep and why I tried to merge it into my art.
Jazz, Big Band Swing, Blues and Tin Pan Alley Pop got over-simplified into Rockabilly & Rock & Roll with utter gibberish lyrics and choruses that could rely on counting! Where was the art? That put a lot of noses out of joint but gave rise to Rock and everything that came after; Beatles, Beach Boys, Dylan, Springsteen, Steely Dan…
Rock turned into Prog Rock, Metal and a host of other styles then was disintegrated by Punk. Yes’s “Close To The Edge” replaced by Ramones’ “Blitzkreig Bop”; the horror! From that grew Ultravox, Spandau Ballet, Simply Red…
Funk was cut down into Disco and then even further into Hi-NRG (Laser Dance) which put a lot of noses out of joint and from that grew Neon Judgement, Depeche Mode, Madonna. And then the inevitable devolution: House, Rave, Trance and guess what Dubstep. Yes Dubsep offends me as it seems to have taken everything musical and artistic from music but it is in these bare bones that a new form will grow.
Space Music goes back a very long way (by pop standards at least) and so for it to find a way forward it has to take in something new. It is most likely that I have failed utterly in this merge as most influential artists fail at copying their own influences. I know I have not really translated much Skrillex into this record probably only the wub-wub Filter LFO sound is left (and a vaguely 2-Step drum pattern later in Star-Stepper) but I have a different result from the last album and that is a win.
In the Wub
Probably the part of Dubstep that suck with me most was the device (trope) they refer to as wub: the wub, wub sound that appears particularly toward the end of a musical phrase by having an LFO modulate the Filter instead of the pitch (vibrato) or volume (tremolo). This appealed to me as it is in fact something that was not uncommon in Space Music but the usage in Dubstep is far greater, and far less traditionally musical, so it screams electronic.
This sound became the theme for the Steppers across the album. Interestingly I first used this sound by accident on the track “Toadfish Council” on my last album “Measured Spaces“. I had a laugh when someone said ‘nice wobble bass’ as I had used a technique I didn’t mean to but it did sound like the grunting sound made by toadfish and lead to the track name and theme.
The other thing that happened whilst writing this record was that I started working with a music teacher: Joel Ryan Brown. Yep someone with a degree or two in Classical Composition. It has only taken me 25 years to get to doing this and what a change it has been for me. You will note that many tracks have album versions and then alternate versions. Ryan had me work and re-work pieces, especially the cornerstone tracks Star-Stepper and Sometimes Starfighter. I didn’t really want to let go of the earlier versions. Maybe a weakness but maybe what they lack in finesse they make for in raw enthusiasm. If nothing else the alternate versions may help you to see my thinking. Toss em away altogether if you have no use for them.
This scared me a lot as last thing I wanted was to lose my musical identity to sounding like a drear slave to Mozart-ism. Seems I was wrong there as learning how to get notes to work together better gives me greater opportunity. Sure I can still choose to use odd combinations but now I can choose instead of being stuck with them. A style is perhaps more powerful when chosen, definitely more powerful when more palatable to easy ears. Art is nothing if no-one sees or hears it.
Thanks Ryan Joel Brown