Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Infinity of Space blog 3: music for the depths of space

The “concept album” is generally associated with the beardy progressive rock era of the 1970s, with it's absurd costumes and Spinal Tap-style stage props. But this was also the era when instrumental rock music first emerged, which the way for instrumental electronic music – new genres that were perfect for exploring new musical themes and ideas.

Previously reserved for film soundtracks, instrumental music really broke new ground in the 1970s with albums including Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (to name two personal favourites) that have since spanned decades and still influence artists today.

While artists such as Jarre, Oldfield, Vangelis, Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream continued to create that kind of thought-provoking instrumental work throughout the 1980s and beyond, I've always felt that instrumental albums have in more recent times, generally been neglected or often looked upon as being naff or mis-labeled under the cringeworthy category of “New Age” music.

But with the advent of music platforms like Bandcamp or Soundcloud and all the means now available to independent artists to publish their work, I have found myself in the company of many likeminded artists or bands, drawing inspiration from that era and once again creating this kind of concept-driven music. 

The fact that there are countless musicians out there creating fascinating instrumental works and even more people streaming or purchasing their music, is a clear indication that there is still an interest and an appetite for the kind of music that one requires that deeper degree of thought and perhaps patience. This is also kind of music that is perfectly suited to accompany our thoughts and aspirations when we look up at the stars in the night sky.

As honorary musician for the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is), this music is an ideal means through which to explore and reflect the Initiative’s mission statement and objectives.

With Infinity of Space – my forthcoming album in association with i4is – more than ever before, I wanted to create moods and atmospheres that are suggestive of the overall theme of space travel, but which may also take each listener on their own aural voyage beyond the stars, while remaining strong musically. And although Infinity of Space is a clear concept album, I didn't want it to be too confined – the result is an album that works more like a snapshot of a much longer journey into deep space.

Below is a brief preview of the track Destiny.

Infinity of Space will be released via Bandcamp in February 2017. Watch this space for further details.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Infinity of Space blog 2 – Levels of inspiration

Growing up as part of the Commodore Amiga gaming generation of the 1990s, the electronic in-game soundtracks were just as exciting and important as the games themselves as were of course, the graphics. And there was some fantastic game music, as I have previously blogged about – this is perhaps one of the more unlikely influences of my own work. Or is it?

The Amiga heralded a new dawn for computer arts and music, and over twenty-five years later, those game soundtracks still inspire my music, just as the Amiga’s pixel art and the designs of the games themselves have influenced my artwork.

I always loved how each level of arcade games had it's own soundtrack to suit the surroundings, whether you're controlling a warrior clambering through a rocky alien terrain or a fast spacecraft hurtling through strange worlds. The music would be a great match for the different worlds, and I would often find myself looking forward to particular levels just to hear the music!

There were so many great games – hundreds – with titles such as the Turrican series, The Chaos Engine, The Settlers, Disposable Hero, Apidya, R-Type, Menace, Blood Money, the Eye of the Beholder series and the Shadow of the Beast series being among my long list of personal favourites. Every game offered the chance to escape in a different time or universe, with each looking and sounding unique.

When I wasn't playing the games, I would put a cassette recorder in front of the speaker and record all the various game music that I loved. Who needed the radio, when you had an Amiga? So much skill and creativity went into every aspect those games, and I still find it incredible that they managed to fit so much on to just one or two floppy disks!

While I loved many different games, I always had a soft spot for sideways scrolling shoot-em-up games, which usually took you on a fantastic voyage through space and alien worlds. With so many interstellar themed games, you could fly off into space without even leaving your bedroom!

So that whole era had a huge impact on my teenage self and ultimately shaped my career path. It has also been a real nostalgic thrill over the past few years, as many magazines and books celebrating the Amiga and the games scene of the time have been published – and many of the games themselves have been emulated for iOS and Mac, so I've been able to re-live the enjoyment without the hassle of digging out my A1200 from the loft and trying to find all the other bits to make it work.

It really is no surprise that today, in making what you might call computer music, that influence has come full circle. Game music is actually an area I would love to work in.

When I'm working on an album – especially one about space travel – this rich influence is something I always keep in mind. Each track is a different adventure, and it is easy to imagine each being a different level in a game, carrying you through different places.

So, when putting an album together, imagining it as the soundtrack to a computer game or even a movie, helps me to determine the structure and atmosphere, scene by scene. I loved the sense of travel and adventure in so many of those games. One moment you might be exploring a city, and the next deep in a jungle, so I'll often think about what kind of landscape would suit the music I'm making, even if it has no bearing on either the end result or the listener – for my creative process it helps with that feeling of journey, especially on a concept album.

With Infinity of Space being about space travel, some of the ideas going through my mind included super fast flight, cautious, slow travel and encounters – which could be other starships or undiscovered planets. Just trying to imagine what kind of sights would await you on such a mission really is a feast for the imagination, and I really wanted to get some of this into the music, and make each track represent different stages in the ongoing journey, and pose different questions.

Below is a brief preview of the track Cruise Velocity.

Infinity of Space will be released via Bandcamp in February 2017 – release date TBC, so keep an eye on or for details!

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Infinity of Space blog 1 - the sight and sound of space

Instrumental music has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the concept of space travel, as far back as Holst’s The Planets in 1914, Bebe Barron’s alien-sounding score to Forbidden Planet in the 1956 or even Joe Meek’s Telstar in 1962 and of course, the vast spectrum of progressive rock, space rock and instrumental electronic music that emerged in the 1970s.

In recent decades, despite there being no new space programme, mankind’s future in space – and how to get there – has remained an endless source of inspiration for artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians, myself included. But in this time, what many have turned to is a retro-futurism, recalling the excitement and ambition of the golden age of space travel during the 1960s and 70s.

Sometimes in order to look forward, you first need to look back. When I look at my own influences – both artistic and musical – they all emerged from that same, prolific and fruitful era.

In addition to this, I have always been fascinated with the notion of letting music create images in the mind and allowing my imagination to explore new environments through music – and I think we all need that escape. With no lyrics to distract or send the listener down a specific path, instrumental music works as a blank canvas for the imagination.

The images that we see in our mind’s eye are altogether different to when we are watching a concert or music video. While there's no denying the thrill and spectacle of a live show, our eyes and ears fight for attention, and sight usually wins. If you're watching something, then you're not always completely listening to it.

It is no coincidence that many of us like to close our eyes in order to fully enjoy and concentrate on music. Shut off the world outside and drift away. I have found that listening either in the dark or with eyes closed, an album or piece of music can take on a completely different mood to playing it in daylight or in the background.

When composing music with which to promote the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is), a specific sound and atmosphere must be sought. What I want to achieve is music that encapsulates the concept of Space travel – from the construction of starships and their maiden voyage to the discovery of new worlds and galaxies – but that also reflects the ethos of i4is yet also leaving room for additional interpretation by the listener. Quite a challenge!

Composed and recorded throughout 2016, Infinity of Space is the title of my latest album project in association with i4is.

While there are no rules as to how such music should sound, I wanted to partly pay homage to the space rock of the 1970s through working with a guitarist on some tracks, for that classic instrumental rock sound, while others are more heavily electronic, exploring other-worldly atmospheres and textures.

Below is a first taste of the album, with a brief preview of the track, Absence (featuring Peter Rophone on guitar).

Infinity of Space will be released via Bandcamp in February 2017

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Sound, Vision, Inspiration

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us have been reflecting on the loss of so many cultural icons and artists this year, which doesn't seem to be letting up, with the untimely losses of Carrie Fisher and George Michael over the Christmas period. 

I spent most of the year trying to comprehend the loss of David Bowie, almost a year ago. As I have mentioned countless times, Bowie's work has been a huge inspiration to both my own artwork and music, as well as being a soundtrack to life. 

This led to me reflecting on my own personal journey of discovering Bowie's music and how it became such a rich source of inspiration, going way beyond just being music. 

I started to write down my various memories, from hearing his music for the first time as a child, to seeing the man in concert. Before I knew it, I had a form of memoir in the making. My wife encouraged me to self publish the work, since it was something - despite being a personal recollection - that other fans would relate to. 

Collating all these memories and experiences certainly did help me to process the loss of such an iconic and influential artist, and made me realise just what an impact Bowie's music has had on all aspects of life. 

Sound, Vision, Inspiration: How the music of David Bowie became a soundtrack to life is available now from Amazon as an ebook.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Taking in Oxygene

I first heard Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene album as a child, in the early 1980s. I was perhaps four or five years old, and I had never heard music like it before.

It was the record that my father was playing. I remember asking my dad what the music was, and his reply was: “Oxygene”. Like many, I would mis-pronounce it as “Oxy-gene” for a long time – it took many years until I realised that the title was in fact, simply the French spelling of oxygen. The realisation that this music came from another country, made it all seem even more enchanting and exotic.

But back then, I remember being utterly entranced by the sound of the album – I couldn’t hear any recognisable instruments… to me it sounded organic, more like some kind of naturally grown sound that was emitting from the stereo.

However, this wasn’t just music – it was something much more sensory. My young artistic imagination was already hard at work – Oxygene part 4 transported me into the sky among the clouds; Oxygene part 3 sent me to a vast snowy expanse with a glaring winter sun, and most significantly of all, Oxygene part 2 propelled me out into space.

At home, I was surrounded with books of space imagery and science fiction art, and from a young age, I was addicted to Doctor Who. I obviously made a connection between the electronic sound of Oxygene and the iconic Doctor Who theme music. Watching Peter Davison running around battling aliens, saving the Earth and traveling to other worlds felt like the right match for this kind of music.

However there was one particular piece of artwork, which hung on the wall at home, that for me, was the perfect fit with Oxygene, and that was a large framed print of British space artist David A. Hardy’s Stellar Radiance. This painting was my window into another world, with its rocky alien terrain and huge burning sun. The warmth and atmosphere that I felt radiating out of the painting perfectly matched the sound of Oxygene and in my young mind, the two became inseparable.

Looking back, it is no surprise that I became obsessed with science fiction, space and electronic music – and it is this which led to me creating both my own science fiction artwork and composing my own instrumental electronic music.

In the last ten years, I even became close friends with David A. Hardy, who is still creating astounding and inspiring artwork – and in our small world, both Hardy and Jarre knew Arthur C. Clarke – my favourite SF author. So I found it very rewarding that both science fiction and art led me back to Oxygene.

It was actually a long time until I rediscovered Oxygene. In the mid-1990s, as a student with no money, I picked up a second hand copy of the album on vinyl. By that point my musical tastes had defined themselves and I knew it was time to reconnect with the album. I seem to recall that this was the first time I had heard parts 5 and 6 in full, and also the first time I had seen Michel Granger’s haunting cover artwork. It was then that I realised it was not an album about space at all, but about the environment and the Earth.

Everything about the album still fascinated me, right down to the tracks not having individual names, but simply part numbers. This transcended music – it was more like an ever-evolving abstract painting that you could hear. And all those years later, it still instantly took me to another place and state of mind.

My rediscovery of Oxygene was perfectly timed, as the following year, Jarre released the sequel, Oxygene 7–13, which proved to be the catalyst for my discovery of and obsession with all of his music. I remember seeing the promotional video for the Oxygene 10 single on TV and it sounded fantastic – modern, yet still distinctly part of the same soundscape.

Oxygene 7–13 was the first thing I bought with my very first paycheque after starting my first job at a local newspaper, in September 1997. I still remember getting home and putting the CD on for the first time and being blown away. That album became the soundtrack to that point in my life, and very soon I found myself discovering the rest of Jarre’s music. Oxygene 7–13 was not any kind of remake or reimagining, but a continuation of the first album, but also it felt like returning to a special place that you haven’t been to in a long time, and seeing what has changed.

Several years later, I would find myself in the suburbs of Paris, regularly visiting the woman who would become my wife. On many occasions in France, I found myself tracing Jarre’s footsteps, visiting the neighbouring towns of Croissy-sur-Seine and Bougival as well as the Eiffel Tower and the futuristic-looking complex of La Défense – two locations where Jarre had held record-breaking concerts. My time in Paris only cemented my admiration of Jarre’s music, and also brought me closer to it.

I started creating my own music in 2006 – and the influence of Oxygene is never far behind. As an artist, I find making music no different to painting; one uses sounds, the other uses colours. So it didn’t matter than I had never had a music lesson in my life – this was more about sculpting a soundscape that could transport the listener to another place or be completely open to interpretation.

One special event for me was the chance to see Jean-Michel Jarre in concert, when he performed the entire Oxygene album live for it’s 30th anniversary in 2008. Jarre’s show at the Royal Albert Hall was one of the most memorable and personally moving shows I have experienced – to hear the album performed in full alongside tracks from Oxygene 7–13 was very special indeed.

Fast forward to 2016, and the welcome surprise of Oxygene 3 – the final part of the trilogy. After a year of so many sad and depressing things from the loss of cultural icons to harrowing terrorist attacks, it is the small pleasures in life that we appreciate more. Music heals, it brings people together, it lifts moods and it makes you think. And in the case of Jarre’s music, it is a constant source of inspiration.

I was left incredibly moved by the first listen of the new album, but after just a couple of days, it’s much too soon for me to delve deeper into it – there is so much to explore. But even after only a few listens, there is no denying this new masterwork, and an album more than worthy of sitting alongside its predecessors.

All three Oxygene albums have a timeless quality to them, and a highly engrossing, organic sound. When you consider every sound on these albums came from cold, hard machines, one can only applaud Jarre’s intricate genius of producing such emotive music. Oxygene has always been a sensory experience, transporting you through a whole spectrum of moods and emotions, through hot and cold, dark and light.

This is the kind of music that makes you feel grateful to be alive and to be able to enjoy our planet with its stunning skies and wonderful landscapes. In many ways, Oxygene somehow manages to bring you closer to that sense of appreciation, from the wonders of nature to the simple ability to take in a breath of fresh air. And yet with it, we are also taken right back to the original album’s environmental warning, reinforced by the slow, burning scream that we hear on Oxygene part 20 – at the very end of the series.

So what does Oxygene mean to me? All of the above, and much more. It feels very personal; it is music I have grown up with, and that has shaped my own creative decisions – it is music I cannot be without. Sometimes Oxygene will take me right back to childhood; other times it feels forward thinking and music to intensely enjoy at 38, just as much as I did when I first heard it. Granted, this style of music takes a certain taste or frame of mind to fully appreciate. And nor are these throwaway “pop” albums; you cannot be content with just the one track in your collection (such as how Oxygene part 4 turns up on endless “chillout” compilation albums). These are not albums to be played passively. No, this music has to be listened to with dedication and experienced as a whole – an epic, flowing soundscape to explore and become utterly absorbed in.

To each and every fan, the album (and indeed the whole Oxygene series) means something different – yet we all share the same admiration for it. I’m grateful to have been able to enjoy it and share in its journey.

Merci, Jean-Michel.


Monday, 15 August 2016

An itch that must be scratched...

This month, it is four years since I completed work on my album Inferno. And more significantly, four years since I signed up to the Bandcamp platform to test the water and have a go at selling my music online.

Four years and fifteen more albums later, I'm still there! I'm aware that having released fifteen albums in such a short space of time is quite an undertaking – but to me, making music is like painting - and when the ideas flow, you just have to go with it. However being an unsigned, independent artist leaves me free to self-publish my albums as soon as I feel they're ready. Granted, they don't go through a professional mixing and mastering process – as much as I'd love to do that, as a cottage industry if you like, I simply put out the best mixed/produced piece of work I can at the time – and for me, that is one of the advantages and appealing things about working so independently.

I have been making music under the name of The Light Dreams since 2006, but while I made several demo albums in those early years, it was all a very steep learning curve – and demo albums was what they were; rough and raw.

I found my direction with Into the Light in 2007 and eventually worked my way to the darker, more industrial-driven Mechanical Drive in 2009, but by the time I'd finished that project, I was burned out musically, and this was also around the same time I was rediscovering my love of art, and beginning to produce my own digital artwork, which eventually took priority.

But as any creative person will tell you, creativity in whatever form is like an itch that just MUST be scratched! Three years passed, during which time I was more than happy to work on my art and build my portfolio. But in the Spring of 2012, that musical urge was edging its way back.

I thought I'd made the best album I could with Mechanical Drive in 2009, so back then I drew a line under that, even removing all those rough demos and album ideas that I had posted online. Perhaps the novelty had worn off, and I'll be the first to admit that I simply had little confidence in my abilities. I concluded music would just remain an occasional private hobby. However, in those intervening years, something had changed, and suddenly I felt that I had something to say again musically – and with new software and a new keyboard, I started work on some new demo ideas.

But rather than feeling rusty and devoid of ideas, all the inspiration I had soaked up in my three-year gap was ripe and just bursting to come back out, and before long, Inferno was in the making. Making music was just as exciting as painting – I often compare the two because for me, it is a very similar process. However I seemed to have improved somehow, despite never having had any musical training.

I was so fired up with what I was producing that I thought to myself, "If I like it, then maybe other people will do too..." so I set about looking for a platform where I could self-publish my music without upload fees and other things that emptied your pockets before you'd even earned a penny.

This was going to simply be a success or failure experiment, and I was ready for either outcome, with nothing to lose. Bandcamp was the right platform for me, so in August 2012, Inferno, my first official release went online – and to my utmost amazement, people bought it. People who I didn't know, either!

As an unknown, unsigned artist, one cannot expect vast amounts of sales, but they slowly tricked through – and that is all it took to give me the motivation to keep making music. In fact, Inferno actually remains my best second best-selling album on Bandcamp after 2014's Traces.

However, still riding on my newfound wave of musical momentum, almost immediately after completing Inferno, I revisited both Mechanical Drive and Into the Light, remixing both albums and improving the production, and making both albums ready to add to Bandcamp. I actually did more than just remix Into the Light – I added new parts or re-played sections that didn't sound very good on the original, finally allowing that particular album (which is very close to me) to reach its full potential.

2012 was also the year when I was invited to join the Initiative for Interstellar Studies as an honorary musician and artist. It was more than just encouraging to be invited to join such an exciting organisation – for them to have faith in my amateur musical endeavours it was inspiration itself, and that gave me the drive to make the best possible music I could make and with each release, strive to progress my abilities and expand the musical landscape that I've been gradually creating.

It has been a fun journey so far - but I couldn't have done it without an audience, no matter how big or small. Anybody who has even bought just one album download has contributed to that motivation and encouragement.

I guess the lesson here is, not to be afraid to share your work, even if you don't feel completely confident in it. What's the point in making something if others don't get to see or hear it?

Friday, 29 July 2016

We Have Lost The President

When author Paul Mathews approached me about illustrating the cover for his futuristic comedy, We Have Lost the President, I knew this would be a project that would not only pose new challenges but also be something very different to what I’ve done before.

The starting point was “Auto-Tech” robot, Brian, who despite only playing a minor role on the story, would be very present on the website and in the promotion of the ebook, so a design was needed for Brian, who was Paul described as being “like a dustbin”.

Having produced a few concept sketches for Brian, we agreed on a design, which I then took forward, knowing Brian would feature on the cover itself.

I produced various cover concepts, which included a headless president’s suit and various scenes of Buckingham Palace, which plays an important part of the story. 

However, we eventually settled on a view of an empty President’s office, being frantically searched.

For the final version, the character in the foreground was changed to a woman, but otherwise the composition of the piece remained close to my concept sketch, with added elements of stacks of paper, and the objects on the desk, which included a slightly comedic cactus, to inject a little humour into the already chaotic scene.

With the cover art complete, the next step was to bring it all to life with an animated trailer for the book. This was also an opportunity to emphasise the humour and originality of the story.

We Have Lost The President by Paul Mathews is available now as an ebook, from Amazon.