Track By Track : Head Spin - Refractor

By John A. Wilcox

This album was another discovery of my nephew. He was browsing bands on Bandcamp and came across this release. It immediately caught my ear! Great playing and a great vibe. I can see listeners of Ozric Tentacles & System 7 really digging it! I asked Andy Scoffin if he'd write up a track-by-track to take us inside the album and he most graciously agreed...

Track 1: Heavy Lettuce
AS: Heavy Lettuce is mostly written in odd time signatures. I enjoy the rhythmic twists that different time signatures can bring to my music. I tend to like it best when odd time signatures are embedded in the music in such a way that they donít actually appear to be Ďoddí, but are just into the flow of the music. Occasionally though, I will deliberately use them to throw a spanner in the works (e.g. the middle solo section of Wax Donor from Escape Velocity).

Towards the end of the track the rhythm section starts to incorporate some Drum & Bass textures. I very much enjoy D&B. It amused me greatly to bring some of those flavours to a track in 13/8 time! As you may expect, the drum programming for this part took some time. Whenever I listen to the first Squarepusher album I am always amazed by the detail and complexity of the cut up drum breaks he programmed using primitive equipment by todayís standards.

Most bass sounds on this track were created using Native Instruments Massive which is capable of some truly twisted and filthy bass sounds. Itís a wavetable based synth I only started exploring in the last year or so. I think it will take me a long time to exhaust itís potential.

The title doesnít mean anything by the way. Itís just a phrase that came up in a conversation with a friend which made us both laugh.

Track 2: Sprockets
AS: This is a deliberately electronic sounding track using mostly 808 and 909 drum samples. Sometimes I just like to explore what I can bring to this context. Part of the challenge for me is getting a groove out a deliberately very electronic scenario. Obviously Kraftwerk proved this possible a long time ago, but it can be easier said than done. Adding some guitars always makes a track breathe more somehow though.

Most of the guitars you hear on the album are a pair of Stratocasters with Maple & Rose necks. I also used a Telecaster, an SG and custom built ĎSuperStratí with humbuckers on various parts. All guitars are recorded straight into Logic using my RME interface, and then most of them go through various amp models on Native Instruments Guitar Rig. I used a Leslie speaker plugin on the Rhodes piano and a couple of guitars, which brought a more vintage vibe to an electronic track.

At 2:40 you can hear the distinctive sound of glissando guitar (popularised by Daevid Allen from Gong, and later by Steve Hillage) where the strings are stroked by a metal rod to create an ethereal sustained sound. I liked the juxtaposition of this very organic sound against the electronic sonic backdrop. You can also hear some glissando guitar on the track Pillows.

Track 3: Rubberneck
AS: Is this the proggiest track on the album? Other folk have suggested that to me. I donít know myself - itís difficult to have perspective on a body of music youíve been working on for a year or more. Rubberneck certainly contains many proggy elements though.

This track began life with the guitar chords which appear at 1:22. This main theme features suspended chords moving in parallel, shifting the perception of major and minor. Iím a big fan of the Ďwide open-nessí of suspended chords in general. I donít hear them as being unresolved as some folks do.

Thereís a guitar section solo starting at 3:33 which appears to have no time signature or bars. This was actually inspired by some 1970s Grateful Dead jams I have heard which take a similar approach (for example the jams in the middle of their track Playing In The Band). The clean guitar solo tone itself was a nod to some of Zappaís 80s tones. Zappa is one is one of my biggest musical heroes and always had such great guitar sounds. The heaviest bit of the track (and maybe the whole album?) is the Lydian mode solo starting at 5:47 which is Ė certainly for me Ė quite a departure: I find Lydian mode usually lends itself to more blissed out/serene/other-worldly musical landscapes, but somehow it seemed to work well in this very balls-out context.

Rubberneck was the track where I learnt to use tape saturation and even distortion plugins on the drums and bass to give them some real world grease and filth to make them more exciting. Most of the drum tracks on the album I programmed with a mouse using the Ďproducer kitsí available in Logic Pro. The basic samples are good starting points but they need buss compression and saturation to glue them together and to make them sound more real and less MIDI.

Track 4: Pillows
AS: This was the most recently written track on the album. Itís another deliberately electronic based piece. Most of the sequenced sounds come from the U-he Repro One, which is a fantastic Sequential Pro-One emulation. Out of all the plugin synths I use, Repro One seems to react most like an actual hardware synth. The other mono-synth I use a lot is the Native Instruments Minimoog emulation Monark, which also features on nearly all the tracks on Refractor.

Just about all the echoes come from the fantastic Soundtoys Echoboy. I used plenty of Soundtoys plugins on the album, particularly Echoboy, Crystallizer, Tremolator, Superplate and Phase Mistress.

Track 5: Twigs
AS: The bass on Twigs is the Native Instruments Scarbee Rickenbacker plugin. This was a conscious choice as I was deliberately going for a Kraan feel on this track. Kraan are one of my very favourite bands and I have always loved the driving Rickenbacker bass which underpins the music they made in the 70s. Just like Rubberneck, there is a ton of parallel saturation on the bass. I sent the bass sound to an aux track, rolled off the top and bottom end, and pummelled the mids with Soundtoys Decapitator. I recently heard some Geddy Lee isolated tracks and it was amazing to me just how filthy his bass tone actually was.

Although most of the guitars on the whole album are Stratocasters, every guitar heard on the half time middle section starting at 4:40 is my Telecaster. Twigs is one of the oldest compositions on Refractor. In fact, the track almost made it on to the previous Head Spin album Escape Velocity.

The first & last parts are in Mixolydian mode. I like to use a range of tonalities where possible. When making instrumental space rock it can be easy to fall into a pattern of being in a minor key all the time, but I find that a little too one dimensional for me.

Track 6: Half Remembered
AS: Half Remembered took by far the longest time to develop out of all of the tracks on Refractor. It more than doubled in length over the course of a couple of years. I just kept feeling it had more of a story to tell. Itís not like I worked on the track consistently: I would come back to it every couple of months and each time it would get longer!

The final piece in the puzzle was the drum & bass type section which begins at 4:34. One evening I dropped a breakbeat loop into the track for my own amusement, but I was surprised just how well it worked and decided to keep it and develop that into a contrasting middle section.


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