The Piano Bug

I recently had a revelation, wherein I didn’t completely suck at the piano.

I’ve been playing keys in some form or another for over twenty years.  I had taken formal lessons for a few years toward the end of elementary school, but fell out of interest in the music I was given.  I played on and off in high school, lending my abilities to a smattering of events and jams.  After I graduated in 2007, I bought an electric piano for college, where the on and off playing continued, mostly due to the fact that I had to store my keyboard underneath my bed due to space constraints in the freshman dorm.

When I moved up the hill to my fraternity house in 2008, I set up my keyboard next to my desk so I’d had easy access to music at any time, and as a result my creative juices flowed like never before.  As school progressed, music took a backseat to my studies and other various activities, and once my senior year rolled around, I had once again stashed my keyboard under my bed.  My senior year apartment was (relatively) nice, but my cozy room had, again, no space for a piano setup.

Since I’ve lived in California, I’ve always had my piano out in full view.  In my first few apartments, I’d even set it up desk-adjacent, like the good old days.  My playing was relatively regular.  A few years ago, I started MIDI tracking some of my favorite songs as a gift to my mother.  It became an annual Christmas present… for two years; in 2015, after recording a shorter batch of pieces later in the year, I stalled indefinitely.  I’d moved to San Francisco and, thanks to the topology of my studio apartment, my piano was no longer within arms reach of my computer desk.  It’s ten feet away, directly behind it, which is a nearly intolerable distance when in the process of laying down MIDI tracks.  I’m only half kidding — the lack of immediacy did definitely kill some of my interest in the piano for a time.

That brings me to now, and the reason I’m writing this.  Suddenly, this summer, I’ve been bitten by some kind of piano bug and its effect has yet to wear off after several weeks.  It might have been seeing Hamilton that made me dive into the Hamilton sheet music book I’ve got here.  When you really get it going, the piano arrangements are extremely fun to play:

On the other hand, another catalyst for my new found addiction might be the time that I stumbled upon a new piano artist whose songs I found not only immediately gripping in their musicality, but seemingly simple enough that I could play them with little effort.

For example:

This is suddenly one of my favorite pieces of music ever.  It’s beautiful, the chords taken some unexpected and frisson-filled turns, and it’s not too complicated for my hands.  I bought the sheet music for this album from Germany on a whim not long ago, and I find it’s not that hard to play.  Granted, I’ve been playing it (and many others) over and over and over these past few weeks, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve gotten better.  Funny that.  I am still working on that quick-chord part in the second half, though.

Between 2011 and now, most of my piano playing has been improvised, relying only on chord charts and my ears.  While fun, this doesn’t do much to help technique and skill.  It wasn’t really until this summer that I really cracked open my sheet music books and sat down to learn songs, slowly and painstakingly without shortcut.  I’ll tell you what, my hands got sore just from stretching and bending to previously unimaginable positions.  The fun part is, eventually some of these more difficult songs actually become possible for someone of my limited talent to play.  It’s a great feeling to finally nail a tricky bar or two, and an even better one to get through an entire song without a mistake or hesitation.  I don’t have a lot of those songs in my repertoire, but that number is slowly going up.

Additionally, I’d had another sudden revelation just this past week.  For years, I’d struggled with digitizing my playing due to the latency between the physical touch of the keys and the output of the MIDI-fied sound.  When you press a key and it’s a full half-second before the note is returned to the ears, it tends to make keeping tempo difficult.  However, for whatever reason, I stumbled across an, in retrospect obvious, fix that I would then quickly implement this past weekend.  I installed a new secondary sound driver designed specifically for low-latency musical input.  It worked (nearly) flawlessly right away, allowing me to play digitized tracks full of effects, backing tracks, without delay nor distraction.  I’m somewhat ashamed this idea never occurred to me in the last ten years, but it’s better discovered late than never at all.

The end result is that, beyond my rediscovery of the instrument, I’ve only managed to further strengthen my desire to play.  I’m even taking my newfound confidence to social media.  There’s nothing more motivating than putting my performances out into the public, where I’m not allowed to screw up lest I face the wrath of my fans.  Or, less dramatically and more realistically, I’m putting all of the pressure on myself to be perfect.  It works. (Especially when all you need is a flawless minute before you’re allowed to make a mistake again…)

Can't forget my favourite part to play! Only made a mistake or two. ūüéĻūüéĻūüéĻ #piano #thesims #jamming

A post shared by Jake Buckley (@jacobdbuckley) on

All of this is to say, I’ve fallen in love once again with the piano.  I can’t believe I let it sit idly for so long; I’m glad its back in my life.

Perhaps you could expect some new music out of me?  It’s been… a while.

Aural Impressions: Nine Inch Nails, Add Violence

It’s not been that long since we’ve had a new Nine Inch Nails release; just seven months ago, Trent and company put out¬†Not The Actual Events EP, which was a mixed bag of retro-industrial NIN and noisy, experimental-ish direction. ¬†It feels like an eternity ago, for various reasons. ¬†Now, with the shiny new¬†Add Violence EP, revealed in a surprise announcement barely over a week ago, they’ve basically put together a new full album since late last year. ¬†Like¬†Events, this one is kind of a hodgepodge of new and old, including a few eclectic new-retro sounds. ¬†You’ll see what I mean. ¬†Like the band themselves, let’s not waste any time getting to the new music:

  1. Less Than:¬† Holy 80s, Batman! ¬†We’re off to the races with bright synths and heavy drums equipped with spacey reverb. ¬†Nine Inch Nails has never really sounded like this before, even in the¬†Pretty Hate Machine days where their music was far more electronic. ¬†It’s slightly unnerving at first as the pitching slides around, but once the vocals come in things start to feel more typical. ¬†There’s a wandering bass synth, harmonizing vocals, and shrieking guitar noises filling out the background through the verses. ¬†At the choruses, a rigid distorted guitar squares in, giving the song a slightly more vibrant¬†The Slip-era feel. ¬†A bridge of noise leads into an escalating series of guitar explosions; the chorus repeats in a crescendo, then silence. ¬†Very energetic and driven by a solid rhythmic pulse, this is a great way to start a part-two EP.
  2. The Lovers:  In complete contrast, we start here with quiet mechanical noise and a low, galloping electronic drum beat.  Bleep bloop.  The hit of a hi-hat.  Half-whispered, half-growled spoken words.  A clean, off-key guitar comes in to remind me of the gloomier tracks on The Fragile.  Always building and growing, but never getting loud.  In fact, this is almost a perfect meld of all of the softer styles of Nine Inch Nails at once.  Everything is here: a dark piano, a somewhat dissonant, somehow uplifting chord progression, a lightly wailing chorus chock-full of falsetto.  This song hits me in a nostalgic, angsty, moody spot.  Something about it just feels right even as it tries its hardest to feel off.  This is my low-key favorite track on here.
  3. This Isn’t The Place:¬† This is a waltz. ¬†The grumbling of a deep fuzz bass, combined with the simple 3/4 beat makes me immediately think of Massive Attack and their 90s trip-hop ilk. ¬†These drums are extremely compressed, giving them a sharp attack as the music above begins to flourish. ¬†It starts with more bleep-bloops, but soon piano comes in and a pitch-shifting synth starts to wail beneath it. ¬†String-like sounds enter from the outer reaches of the soundscape, while vocals come in from the middle. ¬†Exactly halfway through appear the first lyrics, sung partially in a light falsetto. ¬†The smooth environment flowing between the steadiness of piano and drums continues to build and swirl as the vocal line fades toward the back. ¬†The bass pops up and down, in an almost Radiohead-esque way, while the piano turns into a single quarter note on repeat. ¬†Actually, this song sounds¬†very¬†much like a Nine Inch Nails take on “Nude.”¬† I kind of love it.
  4. Not Anymore:¬† Glitching, overwhelming distortion and dissonance bring us immediately into the next track. ¬†Aurally, it doesn’t bring much pleasure to listen to. ¬†There’s a plodding beat, sparks of guitar, and a chorus that’s a sudden, even harsher blast of noise, screams, and live drums. ¬†Toward the second half, we fall back into¬†Hesitation Marks territory, in a brief interlude reminiscent of the sounds underneath “In Two.” ¬†This isn’t my favorite, though at least it’s short and ends rather abruptly. ¬†I’d consider it a structured version of “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man” with lyrics, pretty much.
  5. The Background World: ¬†To close the EP, we’ve got the longest track by Nine Inch Nails by nearly two minutes. ¬†It takes up nearly half of the run-time of the EP alone, and begins with slow quarters-on-the-kick as syncopated electronics flutter and buzz. ¬†It’s very¬†Year Zero/Ghosts/The Social Network. ¬†The atmospheric pads moan and soar as they’ve done for years. ¬†Short, synth strings fill in the space between beats. ¬†As the song takes a new shape (one of several), a delayed percussive-sounding synth takes over the rhythm as the strings flatten and linger. ¬†Fuzzy bass pops in to bring us back around to the start. ¬†Then the darkest, deepest, crashing piano notes reverberate below. ¬†As we’ve heard so many times before, the steadiness is gradually overtaken by an ever-growing assortment of sounds, all of the previously introduced instruments and melodies forming into a maelstrom of polyphony. ¬† It cuts out briefly into an awkwardly moving fuzz, the sound of a cross between a nuisance bee and a weed whacker. ¬†It’s only there for a completely jarring second but it needed to be noted. ¬†The steady returns, but each bar is cut off by an extra half-beat of silence, just enough to completely ruin the timing. ¬†This is an interesting maneuver, as the song starts to devolve into static and fuzz over the course of the remaining minutes — the rhythm is broken and now the melodies are fracturing. ¬†Somewhere in the middle of this collapse, the sound quality hits a sweet spot that reminds me totally of the music of¬†Terminal Velocity, which is a soundtrack that had always stayed an arm’s length away from Nine Inch Nails in my musical spheres. ¬†Eventually, there’s no trace of tone or beat, just an ever unifying cascade of crashing noise. ¬†Naturally, it ends with a flip to silence, which is almost more disquieting after six minutes of noise.

Whereas¬†Not The Actual Events felt more like a revival of¬†The Downward Spiral amid a swirl of electronics and noise, this feels almost like an inverted take on the latter, while conjuring up the¬†The Fragile,¬†Pretty Hate Machine, and the styles of the early 2010s. ¬†Musically, there’s not a ton of cohesion here, like there hadn’t been previously, and taken together with Events¬†as a 10-track album, there’s even less. ¬†But that doesn’t matter as much. ¬†The sounds here are fresh, yet nostalgic, which is pretty much all that I want out of Nine Inch Nails these days. ¬†It’s somewhat more straightforward as a whole than the difficult-to-penetrate noise of¬†Events, but on the other hand the five minutes of extra length that it has on its predecessor is filled entirely by just that. ¬†It’s frantic, diverse, and solid. ¬†Given my expectations for more new NIN after the last release, I’m completely satisfied with this as a follow-up.

Aural Impressions: Dispatch, America, Location 12

Dispatch is a band I’ve followed for a long time, all the way back to the summer after I graduated from elementary school. ¬†In those years, I associate their music with some of the best times of my life, mainly during the carefree summers of yore. ¬†From the folk-influenced styling of¬†Silent Steeples, to the broader roots- and rock-tinged¬†Bang Bang, the stripped-down jamming of¬†Four-Day Trials,¬†and the diversely electric hodgepodge of¬†Who Are We Living For?, their many sounds are in some way synonymous with a youthful happiness.

They entered my life at a time when the world was full of limitless possibility; when my hometown transitioned from the entire universe to merely its gateway. ¬†I associate Silent Steeples with not-too-far removed memories of Hawaii;¬†Bang Bang¬†with New England summer;¬†Who Are We Living For? with late-summer storms before leaving for college; Brad’s solo album¬†Watchfires with that same time’s sunsets; Pete’s album¬†Untold with freshman year of college. ¬†Part of what makes Dispatch so timeless to me is their long hiatus. ¬†They disappeared from the studio for over ten years, appearing only in a smattering of live shows during the span between albums. ¬†In that time, improbably, their popularity only seemed to soar.

They put out an album in 2012,¬†Circles Around the Sun. ¬†By then, I was just recovered from the worst of times, albeit still living everyday in a psychological hellscape for still months to come. ¬†That album never grew on me. ¬†It felt more like a collection of solo material from each of the three members (some of it was, in fact), and not even their best. ¬†Dispatch fell off my radar again. ¬†Five years later, they’ve returned. ¬†America, Location 12 is their latest offering, is an absolute treat, bringing back the harmonies and melodies I loved so much. ¬†They make extremely good use of acoustic guitars, but also add some new production elements — not too much to distract, just enough to enhance and freshen. ¬†But enough talking about it;¬†let’s dive in, shall we?

  1. Be Gone: ¬†Interesting that an album titled “America…” would being with a Celtic-sounding flurry of guitars, both electric and acoustic, that gives way to a chant-like vocal accompanied by a plodding drum. ¬†The main vocal line is sung by Chad with harmonies from the others buried a bit deeper in the back. ¬†At times it feels almost State Radio-like. ¬†There are keyboards and several tempo changes, abruptly shifting dynamics and a wide range of guitar effects, from clean, to distorted, to a very subtle tremolo in the bridge. ¬†A riff in the early middle of the song changes into 5/4 for four bars out of nowhere. ¬†There are a few false endings, with the last one leading to an extended instrumental outro of guitar effects, blasts of distortion, bass, sustained vocals from Brad, and a closing sound of fading reverb. ¬†Such an outro is definitely a curious way to start.
  2. Only The Wild Ones: ¬†A jangly, syncopated clean guitar forms the basis for the next song. It goes at an apparently arrhythmic 4/4 until the picking straightens up in the chorus. ¬†It’s slow and warm until the percussion comes in, adding a deal of clarity to the rhythm, as well as some additional movement. ¬†It continues to build and build, bringing in muted guitar, a broader range of percussion, and multi-layered vocals — again Chad is here on lead. ¬†The background harmonies are done well, as usual, though it sounds like at times like it’s a multi-tracked Chad instead of the trio. ¬†I like this song. ¬†It gets bigger as it goes, but not too big; overall it’s pretty chill. ¬†Reminds me somewhat of a more energetic combination between “Bang Bang” and “Bullet Holes.”
  3. Curse + Crush: ¬†This one begins with aggressive minor key acoustic guitars and reverberating vocals with a steady, chugging drum beat. ¬†It’s somewhat militant, pushing forward with the strumming driving the rhythm. ¬†The chorus features low vocals, a perfect blend of all three voices. ¬†Like the previous track, this one builds and expands its sonic palette with electrics and broader vocals, bursting into a nice major key chord progression. ¬†All three shine through in the elevated chorus all the way to an abrupt conclusion.
  4. Painted Yellow Lines: ¬†Woah does this song move. ¬†The drums are straightforward and quick, the bass dances, and the guitars lightly nudge it along. ¬†There are handclaps and tambourines, used sparingly, but effectively. ¬†And then it stops as soon as it gets going into a contemplative, vocal-laden chorus. ¬†This cycle goes on and off a few times during the first few minutes. ¬†We flip between indie and classic rock, evoking an effective mixture of the sounds of the 70s and 00s. ¬†As clean electric guitars enter, we’re really pushing along here. ¬†It sounds very unlike Dispatch, yet it works. ¬†At certain times, the the rhythm and melody recall The Beatles’ “Two of Us,” but overall it sounds much more lush and smooth. ¬†Our fourth Chad song in a row, I’m hoping the others take the lead within the remaining seven songs. ¬†“Painted Yellow Lines” is definitely one of the standouts of this album. ¬†It really doesn’t hurt that the lyrics talk about going to the beach; naturally, it fits right in with my existing impression of the band.
  5. Skin the Rabbit: ¬†Crunchy! ¬†I haven’t heard a riff like this on a Dispatch record ever. ¬†Reminds me somewhat of Collective Soul or Soundgarden at first listen. ¬†Vocal duties here are split between Chad and Brad. ¬†At this point I’m starting to think I don’t really know what Pete sounds like anymore. ¬†But this song is quite good. ¬†The vocals are relentless in their push forward during the chorus. ¬†The bass bounces and slides. ¬†The chord progression is suitably dark, given the subject matter. ¬†The bridge is wide and spacey, and by the end I’m getting strong¬†Who Are We Living For? vibes. ¬†Solid song, perhaps my immediate favorite.
  6. Midnight Lorry: ¬†Another folksy riff with multiple acoustic guitars and/or a banjo. ¬†This is the kind of bluegrass influence I didn’t know I’d been missing. ¬†The synergy of the dueling riffs is wonderful. ¬†Chad’s vocals are half-sung, half-rapped during the verses. ¬†There’s a lovely upbeat sung chorus with a slight reggae-rock feel, throwing us back to Bang Bang. ¬†In the middle we’ve suddenly popped into an almost electronic ambient environment — for a hot second it sounded almost like Air or something like that. ¬†The second half is even weirder. ¬†Beyond a repeat of the chorus, there are electronic effects, a dulcimer, an ever-changing key, and rising vocals, leading to a sparkling texture inside a blending choral melody. ¬†It reminds me a lot of The Beatles or Elliott Smith, especially each of their latter works.
  7. Begin Again:¬†Fast picked guitar and a low-sung vocal immediately brings to mind Joshua Radin and his signature style. ¬†In the second verse we get a lead vocal in the verse from Brad, though it’s later shared with Chad.¬†¬†Pete’s vocals appear in the background, understated and deep; a role he seems to have settled into on this record.¬† This is a short, hopeful, upbeat song featuring a mandolin, whistling, and a crescendo of brass, which I don’t think we’ve heard since Bang Bang.
  8. Rice Water: ¬†Sublime picked guitars and a solo ride cymbal progress in a twisting, dissonant way, again making me think of mid-career Elliott Smith. ¬†Musically, this album is far less straight-forward than previous efforts by the band. ¬†This song is understated, with occasional falsetto vocals, and injections of energy at the first choruses. ¬†Near the half-way point it leaps into a full-on sprint. ¬†After that, it’s a different song, with full instrumentation, catchy, upfront vocals and a stutter-stepping pre-chorus. ¬†The latter half’s energy is contagious when coupled with the minor chords, while the suddenly slow and drawn out conclusion feels almost psychedelic.
  9. WindyLike: ¬†Bagpipes and a meandering bassline under bright acoustic guitars feels so much like a solo Braddigan song. ¬†And like a solo Braddigan song, this mostly likely my favorite of the album. ¬†It’s catchy, upbeat, and simple, with flourishes to bring up the mood including a stop-and-go rhythm, a soaring chorus with only a slight effectively deployed touch of melancholy, and an exceptionally warm atmosphere. ¬†This is the kind of song that’s been missing almost since all the way back in the day of¬†Silent Steeples, and it might make the perfect sound for a sunny day. ¬†It’s a shame it ends with a fadeout, because the diminishing sound is almost as intriguing a bridge as the rest of the song. ¬†I’d love to hear this song live among a stadium of singing fans.
  10. Ghost Town: ¬†Can I just remark at how good the acoustic guitar playing is on this album? ¬†It doesn’t take the spotlight, it just adds so much to the foundation to these songs. ¬†This song doesn’t differentiate itself a ton from the album’s overall feel, however the later choruses have several overlapping and poly-rhythmic vocal lines from Chad, Pete and Brad. ¬†I love when they pull this off so much, I wish there’d been more of it on this album, though that alone will keep me coming back to this song.
  11. Atticus Cobain: ¬†¬†Sharp electrics and heavy drums make this one a slight throwback to¬†Who Are We Living For?, though again it’s just a bit different. ¬†The crisp strums evoke Gold Motel to me, but in the Dispatch-realm, the verse is definitely influenced by years of Chadwick Stokes material. ¬†Soon, it erupts into a lively sing-a-long chorus more indicative of an album closer, one that takes great pleasure in doing nothing other than celebrating life. ¬†Those later-chorus chords are especially scintillating. ¬† It makes me think of a song like “Railway” that doesn’t take itself too seriously. ¬†It’s riff heavy, uptempo, and over before you know it.

I really like this album. ¬†Upon first listen I was a little disappointed in the lack of standout vocals from either Pete or Brad, the latter of whom has consistently fronted my favorite Dispatch songs, but upon close repeated listening, they’re all definitely there, with their harmonies and backups as tight as they’ve always been. ¬†Unlike¬†Circles Around The Sun, this album is more thematically and sonically cohesive, sounding like a proper Dispatch record as opposed to an album of solo B-sides as mentioned fore. ¬†It’s mostly chill; no one song gets too large, yet they’re all superb quality. ¬†The fact that it, most of the time, fits immediately into their early sound is comforting. ¬†The completely unexpected moments, like the clean energy of “Painted Yellow Lines,” or the entire second half of “Midnight Lorry” serve to keep it fresh and interesting. ¬†Discounting¬†Circles, it feels like it’s been years since I’ve really¬†heard what the band can do when they’re firing on all cylinders. ¬†What more can I say, Dispatch is back.