BURNING OFF THE WOLF
"If you would operate by means of our bodies, take a fierce grey wolf, which, though on account of its name it be subject to the sway of warlike Mars, is by birth the offspring of ancient Saturn, and is found in the valleys and mountains of the world, where he roams savage with hunger. Cast to him the body of the King, and when he has devoured it, burn him entirely in a great fire. By this process the King will be liberated; and when it has been performed thrice the Lion has overcome the wolf, and will find nothing to devour in him. Thus our Body has been rendered fit for first stage of our work. "
This is a quote from The Twelve Keys, a text written by a 15th Century monk named Basil Valentine regarding, as it turns out, alchemy. It is now thought that the name "Basil Valentine" was a pseudonym for several different alchemist authors, and this text was a coded description of chemical (alchemical) equations and methods. It's secrecy was a form of protection, to share their craft among themselves and their disciples, in a way which kept their secrets and methods safe, with words and phrases that went beyond the common man's understanding. These were also coded terms, like passwords, to gain trustworthiness. And what this mythological tale of the Twelve keys, this "key" in particular, was describing was a method of extracting pure gold from antimony... or something like that. I don't claim to know much about it. This whole thing is the result of a random internet search, which is relevant. So, forgive my amateur description, if there happens to be any hardcore alchemists reading…
Anyway… Long story short, the map-key here is that gold is the "king", and antimony is the "wolf". The allegory alleges that you would heat the antimony (wolf) with iron (Mars), mixed together in a "crucible of fire", and it will draw out the gold (king)… symbolically, the king being eaten by the wolf, and then throw it's body into the fire… I am not sure, if I have this right, or if this is an actual chemical reaction that can be used and performed, and not just some "magic" spell of alchemy. I suppose that during these times, anything close to even your most basic chemistry, as we know it now, may have seemed a little more otherworldly than it actually was. Again, I don't claim to know much about it, but if you are curious to read more, check out this article, or these excerpt from a book on the matter.
Now, I am presenting this here, because within this little tidbit of pseudo-mystic mythology is the inspiration for how I came up with the title and theme of this song. I was thinking about what to call it, and I had a good amount of lyrics written. All of them had to do with change, evolution, the overcoming of the darker side to the light, things like that. I began to think about different concepts of transformation: lycanthropy, metamorphosis, and alchemy, which I only knew just a bit about, (and mostly via Led Zeppelin ... haha!). So I went on a internet/Wikipedia "quest for knowledge".....
Side-note: I am honestly just absolutely fascinated with the internet's intellectual resources. What really blows me away is the amount of intellectual freedom it grants to the curious mind and to one who knows how to properly search. Need to fix something on your car, guitar, computer, toilet? Chances are someone has posted a video, opened a forum, or posted a link to something that can help, or help you find your way. (By the way, and serious kudos to those people who seemingly thanklessly post these how-to's and tutorials). But really, it's amazing, if you have a willingness to learn or a thirst for information. To prove the point, just go ahead and search for a number and a letter… Here, I'll do it for you, to start it off... let's say the number 6.
There's a whole Wikipedia page, and it goes into the shape, design, origin, etc. of just the simple number. Then it dives into it's meanings in cultures around the globe, from pop-culture references to religious symbology… from there, there are links to alphabets, cultures, countries and countries that aren't countries anymore… far away worlds filled with their own vibrant and varied mythologies, music, art, words, phrases, modes of transportation, trade routes, political assassinations, military coups, triumphs of the spirit, sexual attitudes, rituals, sacrifices, virgin births, space missions, frontiers, apocalypses… all of this starting from a single digit, expanding exponentially like the worlds largest subway map, lit up like city streetlights viewed from an airplane, a labyrinth of ideas, answers, and questions… and often carrying me through the night, consuming random information, until I finally am forced to begin my descent to a reluctant sleep.
When I am trying to develop an idea for a song or lyrics, oftentimes I will cue up Wikipedia to help brainstorm, especially when I don't want to settle for the obvious themes. I also try to avoid the temptation of the first-draft low hanging fruit. So if I need something unique to write about and don't know where to start I just toss around a few search words and see what happens. I like to look for cool phrases or concepts, new words or lingo… scientific theories, technical instruments or concepts deeply related to some field or school of thought, the more obscure or occult the better.
Much like the "coded" myths described above, I have my reasons for this utilization of the obscure. I don't just throw things in because they sound cool, although they often do, and I mean, lyrics should sound cool right? Nevertheless, how it sounds is not the primary goal. I'm not trying to sound smart without knowing a little bit about what I am talking about. I don't throw big words in to be deliberately confusing, like some pretentious avant-garde installation, nor do I seek to seem knowledgeable about some obscure or occult thing or practice. The obscurity is pointless unless it has some sort of deliberate meaning behind it. The words or phrases have to be pertinent, they have meaning or some relationship with the mood or subject at hand. And, they have to fit in the cadence, so they're not clunky or silly. I admit, however, that I do consider the lexical aesthetic when casting my searchlight upon the digital depths. As evidenced by the preceding sentence.
What I'm doing is I'm looking for touchstones, guideposts, and significant words, all placed in a way to guide the listener to the theme or story at play. This borrowing of jargon is meant to paint pictures with words and using these lost phrases and subjects to present an idea, to re-purpose them with their history in tact but to symbolize something else.
So… circling back: alchemy. I went ahead and started searching and researching alchemy. Just basic concepts, ideas, skipping ahead, and I stumbled across this page. I was intrigued and mystified by the writing, the coded messages, the secret "sorcery", the mathematical proof, the chemical reality, the symbols and symbolism… but I was also kind of wondering if it might not also be an allegory or myth for something that has to do with life itself, a lesson. If not maybe I could re-prose it as such. The article I had read was almost suggesting a sort of medicinal value to the process. I'm thinking something a little more metaphysical: Corruption and purification, and maybe how the two are necessary together.
Imagine a scared rite or ritualistic version of going on a bender right before a serious detox. Or maybe imagine a journey across South America. One which begins, full swing, in Rio Di Janero for Carnival, with all of it's debauchery and excess... and at the end of it, when the body is about to give out, in the bleary-eyed sweat of a tropical hangover, we start across the continent, consuming less and less of these vices as we travel by jeep, by boat, by bike, and by foot, sweating out the impurities with each mile, all the way through the Brazilian, Bolivian, and Peruvian wilderness... until we finally arrive at Machu Picchu, now clean and pure of mind, heart and soul, purified by the heat of the South American latitude and landscape, dangerous trials and tests of will… And for the sake of fantasy, let's eliminate any political unrest or local violence that may befall a stranger in these parts of the world, even someone on a vision quest such as this: the indigenous mistrust of a foreigner, the easy mark, no matter how spiritual or internally sacred his or her velocity may be. It's this element of humanity that deters me from ever making such a trip myself, at least now… not the natural elements. Humans terrify me sometimes. But then, therein might be the heart of the quest. Communion. I don't know. For now it's just an allegory. Let's leave it at that before I gas up the jet.
This is one of the more recent compositions of mine, in fact it's the newest composition on this record. It's conception had a very inconspicuous beginning. I was rehearsing for a acoustic duo project with my friend Elizabeth, at her apartment. A few friends stopped by, so we took a break. We were just hanging around drinking, smoking, making inappropriate jokes, the usual stuff. As we were hanging out, I was still noodling on the guitar, having not yet put it down. Then, very suddenly, from a very split second inspiration from nowhere, the main riff of this song came out of my fingers to the fret-board. Quietly but almost at once. I sat there and very casually worked it out. I gradually tuned everyone out and made serious mental notes of it, so I would remember it for later. Often in these situations, the tendency is to have this very private moment of epiphany, and usually it fades away, somewhere between the next drink and the first chance available to record it, which could be days. Sometimes the idea or the basic motions remain, but you just can't get it the same way you were hearing an feeling it at the time. It is lost, for the most part. Nowadays you can get a good recording on your phone, for a spur of the moment solution… but I still seem to forget this.
But I knew I had something good here. I was hitting the two big chords, the A and the G, and interspersing them with a weird B-minor riff, and this Gmaj7 variation, way up the neck, with an added note on the high end that gives it this dissonant ring, something that felt much like a Soundgarden or Sonic Youth sort of thing. It had a growl that was more in their direction than the music I tend to write. My personal musical approach was hardly ever as aggressive or reckless as either of these bands. But I had been listening to a lot of Sonic Youth's record Sonic Nurse... (here's a live clip of one of my favorite songs on the album) and I have always loved Soundgarden. But in this moment of time, with their music sort of taking up a current residence in my head at the time, I felt I wanted to really open up the engine and give my personal repertoire a little kick in the ass. It's not like I'd never gotten aggressive (check out The Real Trick), but I was feeling I should investigate that particular velocity more often. And this is what came out, that night. And when it did, I knew I had to focus hard and make some serious mental notes, to lock it in.
And Damn if it didn't stick. It was there on file, ready for me the next day, as I plowed through a hangover. Over the next following weeks I had worked out the basic structure… the chorus, the verse, etc., making quick work of it. I eventually brought it up to Jake Morelli during one of our sessions. We set up the drum mikes and amp mikes and decided to see what came out. It was another example of Jake's uncanny ability to very quickly read or understand the song presented to him, no matter what the genre, approach, intensity level, or whatever the parameter may be. I was playing guitar, Jake on drums, and we recorded it really as just a demo kind of thing. Only playing it once or twice for him, he immediately and instinctively read the changes, the arrangement, and the feel. Spot on. It was supposed to be a practice session, just feeling it out. But upon further review and playback, the performance had just the right amount of raw power that the song called for.
Weeks later when I really sat down to flesh out the idea, I decided to use both of our performances. They weren't the best recordings, in terms of sound quality. The room was kind of quickly miked, more for reference than precision, so we ended up with a lot of bleed overs. But raw was good.... They also weren't flawless performances, but they were incredibly easy to edit, fix and quantitize in Logic. I eventually decided to apply the drum machine/matching thing with Ultrabeat (a program and process which I have probably over-described in previous posts… a subject only of potential interest to other producers and musicians, please read my posts on "Lush" and "Ibiza" for details), but only to get a crisper audio and add some fills, but I needed to keep the feel and ambience of the take, so I only slightly mixed it in with Jake's drums,
In terms of rhythm, there was something else I was hearing in my head, something that would have been impossible for any drummer to include simultaneously with the real rock feel of the song, at least any drummer with only the standard issue two-arms/two-feet configuration. Jake had really nailed the heavy, hard rock stuff, but I was also hearing something over, under, through and around the basic rock thing, something that had more of a gallop to it, like a horse or maybe a train… More forward motion. I asked him to try and do it, but I'm not sure if I was able to explain myself correctly. So I let it go for the moment
So, when I was back in the studio, I thought that maybe some congas would provide that kind of roll I was looking for. I turned again to the trusty Ultrabeat program, and stumbled across a preset that had them and tried it out. I just chose the generic pre-programmed beat, just to see what it sounded like, planning on re-adjusting everything to fit a beat to the song. I pressed play. Instantly, it was there. I hate to admit it, this generic pre-set rhythm was the perfect fit. I didn't change a thing. As it played along with the song, I was instantly gratified… The beat itself, while "generic" and preset, was nevertheless complex, but I expected to have to do a little work. I did not expect it to line up so perfectly with what I had.
The time-signature was different, but everything landed in a way that kept it in time, but let it revolve and cycle so the beat wasn't static, in relation to the rock rhythm Jake was providing. This may seem like a lazy approach and maybe giving away too much in terms of tricks and time involved, but if it sounds good, it sounds good…I had to sync up the drums using Logic's flex tool to get Jake's drums quantitized and everything else to lined up (For studio geeks and anyone interested, Logic's "flex" tool enables you to line up the drum hits with the time grid, so everything is in time with the session and other instruments… again, I know not interesting to the lay person, but I find this technology incredible. Check out this video if interested).
Once this was achieved, the rhythm was really something new and different. To me at least. The congas were now adding this frantic thread through the song, giving that gallop that I was looking for, without compromising the steady pounding of the drums.
So now I had this power-rock monster beat with this world-beat conga gallop, which was carrying this song into a pretty interesting place. Interestingly enough, since I mentioned Soundgarden before, they did something similar on their last album, King Animal… specifically the song "I've Been Away For Too Long". Coincidentally, this album came out about a few months after I had added the conga rhythm to this song… so I was kind of taken aback by the coincidental similarity. And kind of encouraged.
The other part of the instrumentation of this song that fit very closely to this conga rhythm was the synth. I'm not sure what made me search for it, but I'm guessing I was looking for something clean and modern, something to contrast the grunge guitars. What I came up with, however, which you can hear in the song, is some sort of mix of flute and xylophone, that really carries an interesting musical thread, through the song, synced intertwined with the congas, to create this "Tsunami Of Sound", like a "Wall Of Sound" that moved. It wasn't until later that I realized that the synths sounded very similar to the ones in "Hungry Like The Wolf" by Duran Duran… similar title too. I had no intention of referencing them at the time. Maybe a subconscious grab? Funny how the mind may be working without our permission, to our benefit.
And then there is the bass. It's a synth bass again, and kind of a monster. It's very frantic and fast, with many quick 16th-note rapid-fire flourishes. I originally tried to use a real bass, and I'm ok bassist... but ended up using the synth again because I was hearing something that fell outside of my limitations as a bass player. I set down to come up with a bass line, and just started playing around, trying to find something that fit. I began to hear something cool, something that was going to play with that conga and synth combo, as well as the drums, of course. I could hear it in my head, but my fingers just couldn't work as quick as I was hearing it... at least not consistently.
So I played it out best I could on the synth, went back into the midi-grid, cleaned it up and added these rapid-fire 16th notes in between lines. Honestly I'm not sure many bass players could really actually play it, with that kind of velocity and precision, and really nail it. (If you think you can... call me. lol). It almost leaned towards the attack of a percussive instrument. I debated whether to simplify or go back to a live bass, because of the potential issue of live performance limitations. In the end I decided that it was too unique to compromise. I later had the idea of maybe down the road purchasing an electric xylophone and dial in the bass sound, have someone play the bass line with mallets. That could work, maybe? It's a thought.
(Side note: I am working with friends to put together a live set of some of these tunes, this one included. I am allowing for interpretation for a lot of these songs, based on the fact that some of this stuff is hard to pull off, like this song… but also because I am trying to welcome a fresh outlook on the songs, other sets of ears and players… and, for the record (no pun) what the bass player is coming up with is sick in and of itself, so this track right now will just be the "studio" version).
When I was in the process of making this record, I happened to come into posession of an interesting vocal effects processor called the Digitech Vocal Harmonizer. This is a pedal that adds harmonies to your vocals. This one in particular gives a pretty realistic representation. Earlier models and other similar effects can sound very digitized and mechanical. What makes this one stand out, is it is one of the first to incorporate a guitar input that would detect the song's key and the changes based on the chords you were playing. Other harmonizers are limited to just adding a static 3rd or 5th, but depending on the key, and if the song changes key, these additions may be off, so the effect has to be used sparingly and only in limited situations. So while trying it out, I started playing this song, and I began to sing the vocal line that I had been working on for the chorus. It has a "CSN" setting, which would attempt to emulate the sound and structure of the harmonies of Crosby Stills & Nash. I love CSN, so I selected this setting to see what it sounded like. I did not expect much, but all of a sudden, with the right touch of reverb, there were these shimmering harmonies over these chord changes. It was an odd turn for the mood of this song, but it felt perfect as soon as I sang it. It kind of reminded me of the harmonies on the song "Southern Cross", one of my favorite CSN tracks.
This was really an inspiration because now the influences were really coming from all over and every direction. More importantly they were layering up nicely… To review: Here was this song with a heavy chord progression, that post-punk/grunge attack (ala Soundgarden/Sonic Youth), with the intense classic-rock beat syncopated with a galloping world beat rhythm, textured with 80's pop synths (Duran Duran), and now it would be sung with a folk-rock/yacht-rock harmony (CSN). Things were adding up in a weird way that I liked. The sphere of influence was expanding.
I have been getting into a lot of technical stuff in these posts. I hope it doesn't deter readers uninterested in studio-tech stuff from reading around it. In case you might be a little put off by the technical stuff, I want to briefly explain why I find it important to include these descriptions, knowing there may be parties that have no idea what I'm talking about (at best) or don't care (at worst). There's a reason that I include these descriptions in a post that should probably be more geared towards non-musicians and musicians alike. The reason I include them is physics.
I say physics because music is, what I have observed, one of the most physical art forms there is. The sound waves, vibrations, performances, the motions, the sweat and breath… how the sound comes from an idea, a genesis deep within the soul and brain, traveling across the synapses, and transferred out through the body via fingers, hands, feet, breath… onto, into and through the instrument... these motions vibrating the strings, heads, microphone ribbons, now transferred to sound, picked up by the electrical systems... transferred again as a signal through the cables and into it’s amplification system (if needed)... re-produced as new sound waves, now much louder, that travel through space and reach the listeners ear, which in turn vibrate the ear drum and the sound is recreated in the listener’s brain, in the final step of translation to form the idea that was once long ago (mere seconds) a silent thought. Then consider the recording arts, be it tape, vinyl, or the binary world of digital ones and zeroes. Like some benevolent and sacred Phantom Zone, but in this case, not a prison, but rather a physical representation of a trans-dimensional temple, museum, gallery or tabernacle in which it is encapsulated, this idea, ready to be released at any given moment of the listener’s discretion.
But there's a more immediate thing I am thinking of, as a musician, or a listener... but especially as a musician playing with other musicians. Some of the best musical experiences I have had playing music with others were these specific moments, where the jam was out of nowhere, and an almost telekinetic communication evolved… a brief and fleeting language with no particular intention or message other than the joy of how it felt, maybe like the birdsong I spoke of in the previous post. The notes and rhythm drop into a syncopation and produce a spark of synchronicity, where the minds involved communicate through the sounds themselves and the vibrations dance and fit together like the pieces of an ancient puzzle, words in a cipher… and the tones weaved between and gyrated against each other, criss-crossing and building tall beautiful mountains and structures only the Gods could design… and you could feel it. It actually tickled and made me laugh out loud. It seemed as if the physics of the room or surrounding environment changed. The laws had been rewritten, or temporarily put on hold. It was a presence separate of the players or audience. It had no name or agenda. It was almost tangible and it lingered well after the amps were turned off. I can’t really explain the feeling with words, but things changed and we may never really know how, or how much. Or if anything at all. It could have been in our minds, and that’s all that really matters in the end.
And this song is about change. Lyrically the song describes the both subtle and not so subtle moments of change. The moment we feel the world open up, when we understand, finally. The moment we communicate with things that change our worldview, a single word, and with it the picture changes. The moment we pick up an instrument and we birth a new song out of silence. The moment where we may meet someone who changes your life forever, even if you aren’t aware of it at the time.
There I was at my friends apartment, never thinking of writing a song, and then suddenly, the song comes. "Hello! How are you? hope you're not busy for the next few months!" Then the idea grows, and these tools around me help me incubate the idea, to allow me to sing to it and shine a greenhouse light upon the seedling growth. In retrospect, so many times, you can look back and see these very specific things… a person you meet, a place you walk into, a decision you make… it could be as simple as deciding whether to turn right or left on a single city block at a single point in time… how these simple fluid moments can crystallize and re-shape the entirety of your life, and you have no idea at the time. Maybe it is very clear. Maybe it hits you like meteor, decimating all your dinosaurs. Or maybe it’s a slow drip that fills the crater to become a lake. The lyrics in this song are intended to reflect the instantaneous, spontaneous combustion, of these moments.
The first verse is essentially about the moment someone might meet a person and have a "love at first sight" moment (to use a cliche), where instantly his world is changed, all possibilities open up. It attempts to conceptualize the impossible mathematical probability of this instance occurring, the Godly or otherworldly influences seemingly involved that would turn what was one moment an ordinary situation into a supernova of existential possibilities.
The chorus is really a cry for help, a plea for a new life, a new idea, a new place to go, a new thing to be. It is a declaration of independence from an inauthentic life. This desire to be anywhere else but inside the humdrum existence many people find themselves locked in. And this cry is answered... but answered with a question… Will you accept this challenge? Will you take this new deal? How bad do you really want it? And it is asked by these crystallizing moments I speak of. The call to adventure... that feeling of being swept into a current when one answers the call, and is forced to recognize the deepest, most profoundly animal and spiritual aspects of ourselves, the instinct for survival and the glory of rising to the challenge that has presented itself, and never look back at what you left behind.
The second verse is about the hard part of transformation. As opposed to the instantaneous change spoken of in the first verse, this is about the slow burn, and maybe more closely related to the title theme, to bring it back to the alchemy folklore. This is the real change. The purification, the detox, the long hard climb up the mountain. You made the first step, now you have no choice but to make the journey, no matter how difficult. There is no turning back. The best possible version of you is waiting at the end, or it hides dormant inside, there the whole time, waiting to be called forth… it could be a major overhaul we are talking about, or just a simple bad habit that needs an adjusting out… This is the earthly King, corrupt and limited by it's flaws and impurities. But within is our potential. We feed it to The Wolf, the antimony, the darkness, the unknown, to liberate the The "gold", the king reborn, resurrected, cleansed and saved no longer tethered to the earthen realm...
A few quotes regarding the chemical and spiritual significance of antimony in alchemy:
"This element is from the metalloid group of elements, the name is derived from the Greek words anti and monos which means a metal not found alone. It's a lustrous, silvery gray metal and a poor conductor of heat and electricity. This rare element does not react chemically as a metal, and spiritually it symbolizes the wild nature like that of an animal found in each of us which is waiting to be unleashed."
"Antimony is a regarded as a cooperative metal because it works best when it is combined with another metal, notably lead, brass and bronze. It is actually a metalloid that does not react chemically as a metal, but has metal-like appearance & physical properties. It is a protective metal and teaches the values of transformation and adaptability. It teaches of wisdom and strength that can be gained from others and also given in return. Antimony represents the free spirit, wild nature or animal power dwelling within all humans. A person can benefit by wearing this symbol when feeling meek."
"Reverting to the enigmatic formula of Basil-Valentine it is said that the key to this mysterious jargon gives the following simple explanation: This ravenous gray wolf is the sulphuret of antimony. The king's body typifies the metal gold. The sulphuret of antimony is decomposed by iron with the aid of heat, and is thus "subject to valorous Mars" When these elements (antimony, sulfur, and iron) are subjected to a great fire in a crucible, the king (gold) imprisoned in the wolf (antimony) is liberated"
So this is all to describe, by allegory, as I am interpreting it, as maybe the purification and detoxification process. Maybe even a binge and purge idea, since the need for detoxification and purification usually arises from the personal decision to engage in excessive behavior, and the body's need to balance this out.
We could observe the simple de-tox regimen, or any diet or exercise program… where we are burning off fat, calories, impurities, toxins through better eating and a physical activity regimen, sweating out and cleansing the body of these things that deter a body from a healthy existence.
We could also talk about the dark journey of recovery from addiction. Whether it be nicotine, alcohol, or heroin… all of these purification process start with a pleasurable activity that the body becomes chemically used to, and eventually craves, tricks us into thinking it is good for us, that it is the answer to the problem, but in fact has become the problem itself. And the addict has to refuse this substance, and navigate his/her way through the treacherous waters of purification and denial, as the body adjusts and fights for it's return to normalcy. Like an exorcism, the demon is called forth and out, to do battle with the force of betterment and willpower.
There is also the concept of the Shaman's ritual of spiritual transcendence and healing via "sickness" and/or the ingesting of psychotropic substances. When healing a sickness, the Shaman must "feel and understand the sickness himself" and then be able to cure this ailment in others. He must corrupt himself first with the sickness or a substance (mushrooms, peyote or other hallucinogens), in order to find the cure, maybe even cross over into the underworld or spirit world for answers, retrieval of souls, or for information unknown to the living... and then purify himself of the illness or substance to receive and communicate his vision.
These are brief descriptions of the types of transformation and metamorphosis I am aiming to relate through this song. I wanted to touch upon the work needed to achieve a particular goal to change in health, life, business, or whatever. I suppose that I expressed this, unintentionally yet subconsciously, because I am looking ahead to a period in my life where I am going to need to change a few things myself. I am not the healthiest individual out there, not the worst either, but I have my bad habits, my addictions, and some bad attitudes that all need adjusting. Some minor, some major. And I do not look forward to it. I look forward to the result, but have to keep in mind that there will be pain, it will burn, it will be hard, and the temptation for me to give up will be hard to resist, unless I can remember that in every single moment of pain and weakness that there is an end game, a king and kingdom on the other side waiting to be guided. And this, in turn, will bring about other changes, the good ones, and hopefully things will begin to take form in that other dimension of "better things".
... and may this song be the bridge that takes me there.