Friday, August 18, 2017

18: Atavachron (1986)

Photo: Glen La Ferman
The Road to the SynthAxe
     During the making of his 1985 album Metal Fatigue, Allan Holdsworth had begun experimenting with tuning his guitar in fifths (a guitar is normally tuned (mostly) to fourths). Although this meant relearning all of the fingerboard patterns he had been used to, this would essentially give him a greater range of available notes on the guitar. In fact, on Metal Fatigue's final track, "In the Mystery", Allan played the guitar solo using this a "fifths" guitar tuning. Eventually, Allan began exploring double-neck solutions to allow him to apply both kinds of tunings without having to switch guitars.
     "I experimented with a (Chapman) stick which had been loaned to me, and I decided I'd really like to play one that was tuned in fifths - because I'd been experimenting playing with a guitar tuned in fifths. I talked to Emmett (Chapman) about it, and he told me he thought the instrument could work like that - so he made me one where the half usually tuned in fourths was tuned in fifths, and the other half was tuned like a guitar. So between Emmett and me, we applied our logic to come up with a particular tuning." (16)
     However, a more flexible solution came along when Allan was invited to try the SynthAxe, a MIDI-controller whose string tunings could be altered instantaneously through program changes.

On the cover art (probably painted by Francois Bardol), Allan holds a green SynthAxe while wearing a red Star Trek uniform from the late '60s run. The scene is a painted recreation of the setting from the Star Trek episode "All Our Yesterdays", which featured a time-portal device called the Atavachron. In the foreground is a "time memory disc" (used to load the Atavachron with a chosen time period/target location). In this rendition, the time disc shows an image of Allan at age 5, playing a turntable which his father Sam had made (see photo below). The song titles "Atavachron" and "All Our Yesterdays" link to this Star Trek theme.
Bill Aitken (SynthAxe designer): A week before the NAMM show I was in LA, and Oberheim were kind enough to give me some office space in the demo room, to let some of the prime guys in the LA area have a look at the SynthAxe. Allan was one of the guys who phoned me up. He came down, had a look and his reaction was pretty positive - after a couple of hours' rehearsal, he blew an amazing number....
Allan: ...I was so knocked out with it, because I didn't need two necks anymore. It's a way of being able to find new ways of expression in music through the use of a brilliantly designed piece of equipment.
Bill: We analyzed every single parameter like pitch, dynamics, sustain and all of them are independently under software control. If you bend a guitar string halfway across the fingerboard it will raise the pitch by a tone or maybe three semitones. On the SynthAxe you can make it anything you like - it could be an octave if you like. The same applies to the wang bar - it can be the range you want it to be; when you wang it down an octave, all the strings go down exactly on octave, not just approximately, as on a normal guitar. On the SynthAxe, they all go down absolutely in parallel, so you get a tuned chord wherever you are on the wang bar! You don't have to apply these things to pitch either; you could apply them to filter, attack times, vibrato speeds and depths, whatever you want! (15)
     On the SynthAxe, Allan tuned the high E string the same as a regular guitar, but then tuned the lower strings in falling fifths intervals, so that his lower pitch range overlapped with that of an electric bass. As a MIDI-controller, Allan used the SynthAxe to drive mostly Oberheim synth modules, especially the Matrix 12 ("The Oberheim has a vocal quality or can assign two voices to each string. And you can pan them anywhere in the stereo image and get some really beautiful stuff." (19)).An excellent demo of the Oberheim Matrix 12's capabilities (including the 2-step "after touch") can be seen here.

The SynthAxe
     The SynthAxe itself is basically a MIDI-controller, with programmable triggers for sustain, pitch-bending, touch sensitivity and whammy bar articulation. This unit plugs into a Pedal Unit (allowing for real-time control of piano-like pedal sustain and on-the-fly "capo setting" (retuning)). The Pedal unit can go directly into a synthesizer module, or it can be plugged into the separately-bought Console. The Console allows the player to split his signal into up to 8 different synthesizer modules, each with their own stored preset (up to 50) for tuning, transposition, sensitivity, patches, etc... The final add-on piece is the Step On Pedal, which basically lets the player cycle through the Console presets in a programmable "set list".

     One of the main strengths of the SynthAxe is that the neck employs touch-sensitive sensors which detect fingerboard action directly and instantly. Most guitar-MIDI controllers work on a pitch-to-voltage technique - that is, a sensor "hears" the pitch of a string being played, and then converts that into a number, which then tells a synth to play a note (typically this creates a small - but very distracting - time lag).

     The reason the SynthAxe neck is angled oddly from the strumming strings is so that a player can comfortable play chords near the nut (the neck is much longer than a regular guitar). The upper-body "piano" trigger keys are used to produce sustained pitches (kind of like how an e-bow affects a regular guitar). These piano-key triggers are also programmable for controlling sensitivity, envelope filters, etc. Also, the buttons have the same kind of 2-step "after touch" trigger function that digital cameras have nowadays: "half-way down" triggers a note and certain basic parameters, but "all the way down" triggers additional effects (volume shapes, wah filters, pitch-bending etc...). The piano-key module also has individual "group sustain" buttons which will "hold" notes from the high or low strings while one solos on the other strings (this is kind of a chord-melody style "cheat", I guess). Finally, another switch will allow for left or right hand tapping (ie - no need to pick, just finger the neck with one or both hands). A SynthAxe brochure can be examined here.
SynthAxe brochure pages
(click to enlarge)
     "For the previous album 'Atavachron', I'd only had the SynthAxe a short time before we started recording. In fact, we actually came back off the road and I was waiting at home for it to arrive so that I could start working on the album and I didn't write anything until I got it." (23)
     The new album gave Allan the opportunity to explore his new, "any-tuning-goes" instrument. More importantly, Allan had always wanted to play a wind/brass instrument (even from his childhood), and the SynthAxe's sustaining capabilities gave him a sound closer to that which he originally desired. In fact, one of the Allan's signature textural concepts was very naturally realized by the SynthAxe's software.
     "For years I've used a delay, a Harmonizer, and a volume pedal to get my chordal sound. I tried the SynthAxe in the same way, and it sounded wonderful. One of the tracks on the album, "All Our Yesterdays," features that sound. I was pleased with how the piece turned out. Once I got into the synthesizers and their parameters, I tried to get all of the effects to happen automatically without using a volume pedal. Some have real slow attacks, so it's like fading-in sounds with a volume pedal. Now I can control the attack, the sustain, and the release all from the synthesizer. So I've created a number of patches that give like an automatic volume pedal effect. I still have one volume pedal at the end of my signal chain before the power amps to cut down on overall noise." (19)
     Band-wise, I.O.U. "veteran" Gary Husband returned to contribute drum tracks to most of the album ("Non Brewed Condiment", "Funnels", "Atavachron", "Mr. Berwell"). Gary recalls his contributions to Atavachron:
     "The full story of those albums - each and all of them really - I remember vividly. I'll save them for the book! But in answer to some questions on this thread, Jimmy (Johnson) - being the consummate musician he is - would feel his way through dear Allan's songs, digesting them harmonically, playing along with the demos Al had gotten into putting together by this time (w synthaxe and static drum machine beats) of the whole pieces. He'd always choose fantastic notes. We'd all be in the studio and Allan would audition all Jimmy's choices and usually accept all of them, maybe with an exception of a couple here and there. If that. The drum parts for the songs I always formed and prepared - even back in the old I.O.U. days. Atavachron and Sand were my big kinda "arty periods" for that though. I'd have a day to digest them in the hotel room on cassette, and then I'd sit and create beats specifically for the pieces. To be kind of counter to the compositions but something that would carry them in a hopefully interesting and less typical way. Allan really dug that I approach it really creatively and personally. So all the beats and drum contributions - Mr Berwell, Non Brewed Condiment, Atavachron etc were up to me to come up with, and manifested bearing no relation whatsoever to the static drum machine thing on the demos."
(Gary Husband FaceBook page)
 "...There was a studio in Costa Mesa called Front Page, and alot of those albums were done there, on an absolute shoestring. And Allan would give me these little demos the day before, and we’d go to Charlie's Chili Place and listen to them. And in that morning during the setup, I'd be, as he wished me to do, I'd kind of create a beat. “What can you do? What can you do with that?” So I would just relish meeting that challenge, you know. So, it was just like “Please be creative with this, find something to do on it”. And so, as a result, I was able to really stretch my imagination, and come up with something that was kind of a little bit like a counter-composition to the way he’d do things. That's where a lot of those beats came from, and this would be invented in the morning of the session…"
(Sounding Off with Rick Beato and Guest Gary Husband)
     Old Lifetime boss Tony Williams also joined Allan in the studio to record a few drum tracks. However, Allan felt that some of these songs needed a different touch, and so in the end he mostly used Chad Wackerman's electronic drum tracks instead. One song however, still retains Tony Williams' original acoustic drum tracks ("Looking Glass"), while Chad's electronic drums were employed on "The Dominant Plague" and "All Our Yesterdays". The ever-reliable Jimmy Johnson played bass on essentially every track with a groove.

     Another Lifetime alum, Alan Pasqua, contributed 3 keyboard solos ("The Dominant Plague", "Atavachron", "Mr. Berwell"), and new musical partner Billy Childs contributed his own unique keyboard style in a solo for "Funnels". Later, keyboardist Steve Hunt would join the band, and here he reflects on navigating the "Funnels" changes:
     "The way his changes move are so beautiful – they actually have built-in lines flowing in between them – if you can make the scales, they just seem to flow effortlessly – and you wind up coming up with some really beautiful lines and it’s just by making the changes and the scales from his movements…the chords weren’t random, they had a purpose.  It moved from one chord to another because there was a purpose, not just because, whatever, you know. So I actually found it easier to play over his changes than "Stella by Starlight", or II-V-I, I still don’t know how to lay over standard changes (laughs).  I felt really comfortable playing over his changes – not that it was easy – but they just tended to make sense to me and I could find patterns and lines within them." (Sounding Off with Rick Beato and Guest Steve Hunt)
Allan at age 5 with a turntable constructed by his father. (Sam Holdsworth)
     For the 1986 Atavachron promotional tour, Allan's band included Gary Husband (drums), Jimmy Johnson (bass) and Kei Akagi (keyboards), with guitarist Steve Topping sitting in for an improv on at least one February UK date. By late Spring, new unreleased songs from 1987's Sand were already being tried out on the road. A sample set list is as follows:
  • Non Brewed Condiment (SynthAxe) 
  • Looking Glass (SynthAxe) 
  • White Line (supported with keyboardists, from this point forward played the vocal line was played on guitar)
  • Funnels
  • Atavachron (SynthAxe) 
  • SynthAxe solo ("Sand" excerpt)
  • Pud Wud (SynthAxe) 
  • Devil Take the Hindmost
  • Tokyo Dream
  • Three Sheets to the Wind
  • Letters of Marque
An earlier February 1986 Frankfurt concert broadcast can be seen here. The set list for this concert was as follows:
  • Three Sheets To the Wind
  • Letters of Marque
  • Tokyo Dream
  • Looking Glass (SynthAxe) 
  • Atavachron (SynthAxe)
  • White Line
  • Funnels
  • Shallow Sea
  • Devil Take the Hindmost

Produced by Allan Holdsworth
Trk Title Dur Song Breakdown
1 Non Brewed Condiment 3:39 Allan Holdsworth: SynthAxe, Guitar
Jimmy Johnson: Bass
Gary Husband: Drums

SOLO: AH - SynthAxe
"The bass line is actually a 5th below the bottom of my chord in each instance, I wrote the chords first, and then I wrote the melody on top…" (66)
     The song structure itself is straightforward, but the intricate fanfare figure is one of Allan's most exciting "heads". The solo is on SynthAxe, but I'm pretty sure the fanfare head is doubled on guitar as well.

0:00: Drum fill into groove, fanfare over descending harmony, main vamp riff with accented bass.
0:29: Fanfare, vamp riff.
0:45: SynthAxe solo over descending harmony vamp based on vamp and fanfare rhythm.
1:30: 2nd solo chorus.
2:07: 3rd solo chorus.
2:27: Fanfare, vamp riff, repeat.
2:59: Outro SynthAxe solo over same groove, final drum cadenza.
2 Funnels 6:10 Allan Holdsworth: Guitar
Billy Childs: Keys
Jimmy Johnson: Bass
Gary Husband: Drums

SOLOS: AH - Guitar, Billy Childs: Keys
     "I wrote it actually for a different group that were gonna be playing at the Queen Mary Jazz Festival a few years ago.  The Queen Mary has 3 funnels, and that’s why I called the tune Funnels.  But we ended up not playing it at that gig.  I wrote the tune specifically for that because each one of the guys was supposed to hand a tune in – and I wrote this tune with the same changes for the head as for the blowing, so that it would be kind of easy for everyone to play." (39)
     The "head chorus" (0:00-0:45) is repeated 3 times (for 3 "funnels"?) during each person's solo. The final head-chorus has a lead guitar added, playing the top line melody. I don't get too detailed about Allan's solos here because that would require a separate site in itself, but it's briefly worth pointing out the "floating" quality of his solo here. He achieves this partly by avoiding the downbeats, or by letting notes from a previous measure sustain over a bar line. This is a rhythmic device which Miles Davis also used, but Allan takes that idea and spins it in his own way with his own unique poly-tonal scalar ideas.

0:00: Head-chorus: Syncopated chord-melody phrase, broader phrase with sliding chords, modulating cadence, chord melody reprise, sliding chord cadence.
0:45: Guitar solo over head chorus.
1:38: 2nd guitar solo chorus.
2:22: 3rd guitar solo chorus.
2:58: Billy Childs' keyboard solo (flute texture).
3:51: 2nd keys solo chorus.
4:28: 3rd keys solo chorus (with panned organ comping).
5:11: Guitar lead melody over head-chorus.
5:52: Coda, final keys flourish.
3 The
Dominant Plague
5:41 Allan Holdsworth: SynthAxe
Jimmy Johnson: Bass
Chad Wackerman: Electronic drums

SOLOS: Alan Pasqua - Keys, AH - Guitar

     Oddly-accented ("robotic") SynthAxe-driven rhythms support asymmetrically-structured blowing sections. Alan Pasqua's first solo on this album occurs here and he uses some bluesy licks to contrast against Allan's more exotic melodies. This song also features a "surprise" bass solo from Jimmy Johnson at the end. 

0:00: Accented pedal chords (briefly modulating) with staccato synth-brass chords on top, leading to accented ensemble cadence.
0:39: Modulating cadence on SynthAxe (flute texture).
1:23: Alan Pasqua solo with brassy synth texture over previous modulating verse structure (skips modulating cadence).
1:56: 2nd keys chorus (full sequence).
2:54: Guitar solo (opening with wild tremolo bar articulation) over chorus (skips modulating cadence).
3:26: 2nd guitar solo chorus (full sequence, however...).
4:26: Bass solo enters during modulating cadence section.
5:13: Drums outro.
4 Atavachron 4:45 Allan Holdsworth: SynthAxe
Jimmy Johnson: Bass
Gary Husband: Drums

SOLOS: Alan Pasqua - Keys, AH - Guitar

     Allan explores various rhythmic "brass" SynthAxe textures on this song. It also features some great song dynamics (the pedal ostinato stands out). The solos both start out "early", which is a novel touch.

0:00: Syncopated, seesaw SynthAxe (soft brassy) chords over mid-tempo groove.
0:26: Chorus: Rising SynthAxe figures, developed.
0:45: Seesaw brassy figures reprise.
1:12: Pedal ostinato vamp (keys solo opening)
1:29: Pasqua electric piano solo over modulating cadences.
2:04: Piano solo over chorus.
2:22: Seesaw chords, pedal ostinato (guitar solo opening).
3:06: Guitar solo over modulating cadences.
3:40: Guitar solo over chorus.
3:59: Seesaw sequence, pedal ostinato.
5 Looking
4:31 Allan Holdsworth: SynthAxe
Billy Childs: Keys
Jimmy Johnson: Bass
Tony Williams: Drums

SOLO: AH - Guitar
     "It’s based around chords where the intervals are pretty wide, like, for example, the first few chords are played on the first 2 strings and the last 2 strings only.  But I like to do that because then you can give each tune a color, rather than just playing the same voicings, for you know, you’re favorite voicings in every tune.  I like to try and make each tune a little more specific than that, so that they have a specific thing that happens more or less in that tune alone, and it’s not something that’s found consistently in any of the other ones.  Although obviously, because it was my composition I guess, there’s some thread of evidence of lunacy in there somewhere…" (39) 
     "What I’ll usually do is I’ll take a section of the head – it’ll usually be related – almost always, I’ll take a certain section of the head – in that tune - a lot of the solo changes for that tune are from the middle part of the head, and then I’ll morph it until it gets back to square one and then we get back into the head.  And that head’s interesting because it’s in 2 different keys and there’s 2 different heads in each key." (66)
     This song was a favorite of Allan's band for many years and was performed on both SynthAxe and regular electric guitar on different tours. It effectively showcases the drummer in the main head sections.

0:00: Drum fill, accented head chords (SynthAxe and keys) driven by lively drum fills.
0:26: Accented head (reprise variation), ending cadence with top line lead guitar.
0:47: Chorus with broader groove and lead guitar top line over synth chords.
1:04: Accented head, now transposed to a lower key.
1:26: Guitar solo over modulating chorus/head variations (and clean guitar comping).
3:24: Chorus with guitar in top line, accented head (twice, as in the opening).
6 Mr. Berwell 6:21 Allan Holdsworth: Guitar, SynthAxe
Jimmy Johnson: Bass
Gary Husband: Drums

SOLOS: AH - Guitar, Alan Pasqua - Keys

     Allan's nickname for his son Sam was "Mr. Berwell". This song features some dramatic cadences and rhythmic surprises, and the solos occur in asymmetrical positions at times. The ending has a nice, 'regal' feel to it and also features some outstanding drumming.

0:00: Storm sounds, chord melody theme on clean guitar with reverse-echo.
0:51: Head reprise, cadence, drum solo.
1:30: Pedal vamp with brassy staccato chords,
1:44: Guitar solo over cheerful harmony with ending cadences.
2:20: Guitar solo continues as groove broadens (but with accents).
2:46: Guitar solo over pedal vamp, cheerful harmony with ending cadences.
3:36: Electric piano solo over cheerful harmony, broad groove, etc.
4:54: Following rain sounds, guitar in top line over opening theme (heavily accented/ornamented by drums and modulated to a "noble" tempo).
5:45: Coda with drum groove/cadenza resuming, SynthAxe fade out. 
7 All Our
5:25 Allan Holdsworth: SynthAxe
Rowanne Mark (Karapogosian): Vocals, lyrics
Chad Wackerman: Electronic drums

All Our Yesterdays
Through the trees, the sunlight's streaming
the leaves of light are falling down on me
though softly and I close my eyes...
I know there is a treasure here in this place
it was left here long ago, or only last night...
Now in the morning... of yesterdays... are muted yearning
the haze has softened every future fear
for all our yesterdays are near…
Golden leaves, a light will gently fall and color all our yesterdays.

(Rowanne Mark)

     This evocative song feels like a cross between film music and classical art song, with a kind of electronic sci-fi "battle scene" in the middle (such as the Kirk-Spock fight in the Star Trek episode "Amok Time").

0:00: Clock ticking, swelled SynthAxe string textures joined by vocal.
0:34: Bridge (melancholy/suspenseful harmonies) with vocal.
1:30: Thick, layered swells reprise opening harmony variation.
2:15: Improv section begins: Chad's electronic drums enter, joined by Allan's SynthAxe brass stabs and sine wave patches (panning effects).
4:10: Swelled textures (and some harpsichord patches) returns to opening vocal harmonies, falling cadence, clock sounds.

SynthAxe parts
(from brochure)

Next: Sand
Previous Chapter: Metal Fatigue (1985)

The numbers in parentheses after Allan's quotes above refer to sources listed in the Bibliography
For more detailed information on this chapter, see the Annotated Chronology.