Back … Maybe?

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I last posted here. As I think I predicted at the start of the year, I had a flurry of writing for most of January and a little bit of February, and then it just kind of … died.

The good news is that this time, it isn’t because I was cripplingly depressed. (I mean, I’m always a little depressed, but that wasn’t the main driver behind my inactivity.) In fact, I’ve been remarkably productive in the past month or two – just not with writing.

Rather, I’ve been busy with my spare time (which I feel I have less and less of) writing music. Years ago (I literally mean in like 2005) I started work on a metal ‘symphony’, by which I mean it’s structured like a classical symphony in four movements. I wrote about two-thirds of it years ago, then abandoned it in favor of writing, and later, more traditional metal music.

But I always intended to revisit it, and in particular produce it with a more modern aesthetic. So over Christmas and into January, I set about re-producing the parts I’d written so far, and completing the parts I hadn’t. And if I do say so myself, it came out pretty damn good!

And that’s not all – fresh off the wave of satisfaction that comes with completing a project, I decided to embark on a second metal symphony – this one including full orchestral instrumentation. So far it’s about half written, and sounding good.

So as you can see, I have been busy – just not with blogging and writing. Which is unfortunate in a way, of course, because I always intended to keep up with things here as well. We’ll see if I’m able to continue updates, Thoughts of the Week, and all that good stuff, but I wanted to check in at the very least and say hi, because I felt bad that I’d left this for such a long time.

As far as other projects go, I should be getting the edits back for my second YA novel from the editor today, for which I’m exceptionally excited; I’ve been waiting a while, and she’s been delayed (understandably, with COVID and everything), but I can’t wait to see what she has to say – so far apparently it’s made her cry (!).

The Redemption of Erâth is also progressing, if slowly; every so often I’ll try to write a little bit more of it, but I’ve lost – not the enthusiasm for it, but the drive, perhaps? I still want to complete the story, but there’s a lot ahead of me, and other projects just seem to keep getting in the way.

Writing is a lonely profession, and feels thankless, often; I write to get readers, not for money, and reviews are one of the few ways in which I know people are reading my books. And whilst I’ve amassed a fair few reviews for my YA work on Goodreads and Amazon, The Redemption of Erâth remains a little less … accessible, perhaps. I realize it’s a slow story, and I think this puts people off sometimes; in the years since its publication, I’ve only had fourteen reviews for the first book on Amazon, seven for the second, and exactly one for the third.

Still, it isn’t a reason to stop – the story must be written – and I will continue, however long it takes me, until the story of Brandyé, Elven and their companions is complete.

And in the meantime, I will try my best to continue posting here, as well as on cmnorthauthor.com, with updates, thoughts, and random things, because blogging is another way to connect with readers, and I actually really enjoy it.

So thank you until next time – which hopefully won’t be another month and a half!

Nightwish and the Advent of Symphonic Metal

Growing up as I did on a diet of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, I’ve always had a love for classical music, and the power of the orchestra. From the modest chamber orchestras of Vivaldi’s era to the sprawling orchestrations of Mahler’s monumental symphonies, for a very long time I believed the most powerful sound on earth was that of a hundred instruments blasting out at full volume, tuba players red in the cheeks and sweat dripping down the conductor’s brow.

Then I discovered heavy metal.

At first glance, the two genres couldn’t be further from each other. Classical music is dominated by large dynamic ranges, often slow passages, and is usually seen as the intellectual’s music. Heavy metal is fast, loud, and – particularly in the 70s and 80s – somewhat ‘low-brow’. (This isn’t true at all, but there’s no accounting for some people’s judgements.) Classical music is sophisticated and charming; metal is brutish and off-putting. One is sipping sherry by a fire on winter’s night; the other is a college frat-party chugathon.

In truth, heavy metal owes an enormous amount to the classical eras of music, and is one of the most diverse genres to grace the music world, with everything from Black Sabbath to Behemoth bringing elements of classical music into the fray. In Van Halen’s virtuosic track Eruption, parts of the song are lifted directly from a Paganini piece for solo violin. In the middle eight of Stratovarius’s Will the Sun Rise, we are treated to a double-time rendition of a Bach violin concerto. Orchestras were used even before heavy metal to enhance, back and fill out big bands and crooners, and it was only a matter of time before the lush instrumentations bled over into rock and metal.

Now of course, not all attempts to marry rock and classical music have worked to great success; Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra, for example, is just awful. But in the late 80s and early 90s, the arrival of synthesizers and sampled instruments allowed heavy metal bands to incorporate orchestral sounds without the need of an actual live, expensive orchestra. Many underground and some mainstream bands started using strings, bells, and even horn sounds in their music to emphasize certain passages, or compliment the rawness of the distorted guitars, leading to a new sub genre: symphonic metal.

And in the late 90s, one band arose above many others as the true champion of this style, and that was Finland’s Nightwish. Incorporating strings and flutes as early as their first album, and combined with their original vocalist’s operatic training, nothing said ‘symphonic’ like their blend of synthetic orchestras and power metal. In fact, unlike many other bands at the time, the orchestral elements (keyboards and synths to start with) would often take center stage, putting the guitars and even drums in the background.

Then, in 2002, Nightwish released their fourth album, Century Child, and this time, they replaced the synths and samples with a real live orchestra. From the massive string chords of the opening Bless the Child to the massive 10-minute closer, Beauty of the Beast, the orchestra is prominent throughout, and there’s something about the authenticity of the real instruments that stands head and shoulders above anything they’d done before.

Whilst it wasn’t clear at the time if this was a one-time thing for Nightwish or a new direction, it soon became evident that working with a live orchestra was a strong suit for the band with the release of 2004’s Once, and even when they changed vocalists for 2007’s Dark Passion Play, the massive orchestras were clearly here to stay. And their most recent release, Human :II: Nature, includes a second disc which is quite literally a 30-minute orchestral symphony, with no guitars or metal in it at all.

There are many other bands working in this area now, of course, from Dimmu Borgir to Cradle of Filth, but there is no band that does it better than Nightwish.

Long live symphonic metal!

Composing, Songwriting and Producing – Pick Two

[As a side note, I’m nearly done with chapter five of the fourth Redemption of Erâth book – that’s a fifth of the way through!]

I’ve written extensively about music here before; whether the genius of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony, or the ferocity of some new death metal album, or even the gothically tragic undertones of The Cure’s Disintegration, it should come as no surprise to anyone that music is an enormous part of my life.

What not everyone knows, however, is that my actual degree is in classical music composition. That’s right – my highest level of education revolves around scores, sheet music, appoggiaturas and cadenzas, and whilst I often slip out of the habit for extensive periods of time, it’s something I’ve never really forgotten, or let go of.

Way, way back in 2004 I started work on this project that I called a ‘heavy-metal symphony’. Not a symphony in terms of orchestration – there are no great brass swells or roaring timpanis – but a symphony in terms of structure: a four-movement album which each movement being a distinct movement within the whole. The opening movement in sonata form, the second movement a slow dirge, the third a scherzo and trio, and the fourth a twisted rondo … so on and so forth.

I actually ended up completing (to a fair amount of satisfaction) the third movement, which was a submitted as part of my dissertation. The second, slow movement followed to completion, but I never quite got around to finishing off the first movement, and never even started the last.

Then I ended up getting caught up in the day-to-day banality of life, and abandoned this project for over fifteen years. I moved countries, wrote a book, wrote another book, wrote a third book that was completely different from the first ones … life took over.

But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to return to this project. In particular, I wanted to remaster it in genuine production software, rather than through the terrible synth sounds built into my computer. I wanted to finish the first movement, write out the fourth, and have a full, complete album to show for myself.

The problem is that I don’t know how to produce music. I’m exceptionally good at putting notes one after the other, but production is a beast entirely unto itself. The best composition in the world will still sound terrible with poor production, and as pop music so often proves, good production can make an otherwise terrible song sound amazing.

It’s funny, too, because I’ve just come off the back of writing a complete album to accompany my alter-ego’s work-in-progress, The Broken, an upcoming novel about a band caught up in tragedy and despair. I wanted to know what their music sounded like, so I wrote eleven tracks which now form their ‘debut’ album. The thing here is that I didn’t strictly compose these songs; I never used notation software, didn’t write it out in score – i just recorded it into Logic Pro X as a songwriter.

Songwriting, you see, is yet another aspect of the musical creation process; as opposed to composing, where every note, every chord, every harmony and melody is meticulously thought and planned out, writing a song is a more fluid, organic process; you come up with an idea – a riff, a vocal line, a chord progression – and basically stitch these disparate pieces together into a coherent song. The lyrics are forefront, even if they don’t come first; the rest of the instruments are backing to the singing.

I think that my background in composition has helped (to an extent) with songwriting, but my ability to produce the music into something even remotely listenable has been stretched and taxed beyond my wildest imaginations. I’ve learned more about music production in the past six months than I knew in the previous rest of my life, and I’m only just beginning to grasp the audio engineering concepts required to get the kinds of sounds I’m looking for. Guitar amp and pedal effects mystify me in particular; I can hear in my head the exact sound I’m going for, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to get there!

Still, it’s been a fun ride, and I look forward to continuing to better my skills. Despite it all, it’s a lot of fun to write music (in any capacity), and the recording/engineering part is just another aspect to be learned. Still, I can’t help feeling like the old adage, cheap, fast, good – pick two – only for composing, songwriting and production. Maybe there’s a way to be good at all three, but boy is it a steep hill!