Many of Gonzales’ albums have a central theme, much in the same way that many of his songs were driven from a central theme or challenge (e.g. compose an emotional song only on the white keys). In the case of Solo Piano, it’s the (apparent) intimacy and solitude of an upright piano, and in “The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales”, it’s the insightful and bombastic rapper (with no beats), and so on. The original Boys Noize collaboration, Ivory Tower was also a concept album of sorts – a ‘pure’ artist struggling with the pressures of becoming an ‘Entertainer’. For Ivory Tower, the duo were soundtracking to an actual movie, but in the case of Octave Minds, the music is written to a movie that only exists in our minds. This is much more powerful and effective, as the evocative imagery that comes from within us is shaped from our personal environment and experiences. Without a singer (for the most part), the music is universal as we don’t have to strain to interpret words.
There is a general universal theme to the Octave Minds debut, which can be summed up as ‘inspirational’ music that is ‘larger’ than us – akin to how composers would have wanted people to feel when they were sitting in a church (i.e. reflective and prayerful). The only change now is that the ubiquity of music and portable devices has made practically anywhere our ‘church’, and making people feel that there is something larger than us is much more challenging. And yet, there’s no doubt that Gonzales and Boys Noize have managed to capture that awe-inspiring feeling within Octave Minds. This is undoubtedly the feeling that composers such as Handel, Holst, Bach, and so on were trying to capture.
The Power of Restraint
Berlioz was especially adept at defining a space, and then filling that space with profoundly reflective and powerful music. One of Berlioz’ techniques involved the power of restraint. He let the listener know that he could employ an entire army of voices and instruments, but used them very sparingly to great dramatic effect. Berlioz also used silence and pauses as a way of building a feeling of awe, almost resorting to music that struggles to be heard, which makes the listener want to listen more closely. Within Octave Minds’ debut, Gonzales and Boys Noize employ many of these techniques, albeit in a modern form, with a combination of modern and classic instruments. The piano that struggles to start, but never quite finds its voice; the sheer power of sub-bass heartbeats that build tension and explodes in house-shaking glory; the use of space and silence to allow listeners to paint a soundscape as wondrous as any classical piece. There are moments of pure fun (i.e. some ‘Mozart’ pieces) in the form of guest rappers, ancient chants, homage to great Jazz & soundtrack composers, and unabashed 70s disco – all of which provide a sampling of the vast range that these two experienced musicians, producers, composers, engineers and entertainers possess. That’s not to say that the duo aren’t cognisant of the preferences of modern listeners – the songs definitely have a classical influence, with pop-song sensibilities. For example, like most pop music, many of the songs are short three-part sonatas; they begin ‘home’ on the tonic (exposition), pull away from home in a section that increases the drama (development), and then are drawn back home in a celebration (recapitulation). Actually, the album as a whole also follows a sonata pattern, starting off home with pondering “Symmetry Slice” and ending with the celebratory “Symmetry Slice Part 2” – with lots of development and adventure in-between.
Each song is examined in greater detail below, but first, a quick look at the collaboration, overall production, and artwork.
Gonzales and Boys Noize have not simply tried to recreate the ‘magic’ that was Ivory Tower (i.e. Ivory Tower II), but rather push each other to blur the lines between piano and electro to develop a new notion of music. When synth pioneer Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode, he sought out soulful voices to provide contrasting warmth to his ‘cold’ and mechanical synth melodies (he found Alison Moyet and Andy Bell). In the same manner, the warmth from Gonzales’ piano provides an incredible contrast the to the distorted electronic sounds and beats that lie within Boys Noizes’ arsenal. Although this was apparent on Knight Moves, Octave Minds explores the relationship of the piano and electronic soundscapes in greater depth. There is no easy way to categorize the end result; in an interview, Gonzales’ thoughts were along the lines of “New Age-Electronic-Romance.” In reality, the sheer drive of Gonzales’ solo piano with the depth of Boys Noize’ electronic sounds goes far beyond what they achieved in Knight Moves, and shows how each artist has grown over the 4 years since Knight Moves was released. As Giorgio Moroder roughly put it, Gonzales and Boys Noize have pushed music along and captured the sound of the future – an evolution of the sound of the piano, and a challenge to incorporate a higher level of musicality for Skrillex-like composers.
Gonzales said he is willing to disrespect the piano in order to produce entertaining music, and he follows through with this statement on Octave Minds. Within the tracks, the piano is chopped, distorted, reversed, processed, and sliced-and-diced until it is barely recognizable – all to great effect. For the most part, Gonzales does play ‘traditional’ piano, but synth- and rhythm-inspired arpeggios, catchy melodies, and incredibly lush harmonies are also expertly employed. Some of Gonzales’ other ‘trademark’ sounds also make an appearance – descending chimes, repeated “laughing” samples, among others. Gonzales has stated that growing up, his (now) soundtrack-producing brother could not comprehend why Gonzales would want to purposely distort a sound to make it sound ‘worse’. As it turns out, bitcrusher-type effects popularized by Daft Punk and others have become desirable and are expertly employed by Boys Noize. As previously mentioned, Boys Noize’s sub-bass effects are readily apparent from the items falling off the shelves in my house. Like a full-stop pipe organ bank in a church, this album is best realized on ‘capable’ equipment: a stereo system with subs and an amp powerful enough to supply the speakers with the energy they will require. The recording quality and sound placement are excellent, with great attention to detail. Overall, the production quality lends a great deal to the overall soundscape development of each track. Within the tracks, one can hear elements of classical composers, but also more modern composers such as John Cage, Philip Glass, Depeche Mode, Moondog, Kraftwerk, Einstride Neuzabeten, along with production elements from luminaries such as Trevor Horn, Daniel Lanois and Nile Rodgers.
Artwork Exploration: The Lighthouse
The lighthouse on Octave Minds’ cover would be rather ordinary, except for the fact that it’s situated at the top of a craggy and inaccessible mountain. Here, the symbolism may not be so much of a warning to passing planes, but rather the idea that within every one of us shines a beacon situated on top of a mountain that the whole world can see. The video for “Symmetry Slice” features the lighthouse in the form of a beacon that was somehow extinguished when a woman was younger, causing her to reflect on her current existence (which she doesn’t appear to the overly pleased with). Within the “Anthem” video, the woman seems set on re-lighting her lighthouse, and sets off on a quest of discovery and renewal.
Octave Minds – Symmetry Slice from Octave Minds on Vimeo.
Anthem (Official Video) from Octave Minds on Vimeo.
In relating personal lighthouses to music, the album contains elements of “re-birth”; a renewal of the Gonzales-Boys Noize collaboration, the modernization of classical techniques within modern music, and a more personal journey that challenges listeners to rediscover the “joy of thinking” from our youth. In some sense, this concept may be ‘in real life’ for Gonzales and Boys Noize, in that Octave Minds brings themselves personally to the next stage in their respective careers. The ancient theme of rebirth has been eternally popular with novelists and composers, including Dostoyevsky, Stravinsky, Shakespeare and Bach, among countless others. Here, Gonzales and Boys Noize delve into the subject from an album and track point of view. Western music itself, with its tension-release chord progression patterns can be thought of as an allegory for birth, growth, and rebirth cycles. On a macro-level, the album starts with the establishment of a problem (“Symmetry Slice”) that requires eventual resolution, which eventually is found in the soaring “Symmetry Slice Part 2”. Along the way, listeners are encouraged by songs such as the aptly-named “Anthem”, finding one’s true spirit (“Initials KK”), renewed belief in oneself and close friends (“Tap Dance”), and so on. the music is inspiring, and with some introspection, can play a factor in instilling a positive change in someone’s life – causing their ‘inner beacon’ to shine, so to speak.
The album starts straight off with processed piano chords (I didn’t perform a Schenkerian analysis to see what the starting and ending album chords are), followed by a metronomic piano leading a Moondog-inspired sequence of muted and clipped piano chords bouncing along in the background. The metronomic sounds is then reversed just before a main motif of the album is played. Three rising notes that then turn around on themselves and delve into lower keys, only to start climbing up and down again. The sequence isn’t symmetric, but the high registers certainly impart a childlike, innocent quality to the motif. Just before the motif repeats, a pulsating synth enters and is accompanied by a fuzzed bass synth and a heartbeat-like kick (that really kicks). So far, quite suspenseful. An arpeggio fades in resolves into a bright synth voice that almost speaks to us in a foreign language with breathless layers. At this point, the kick doubles up, as a heart is racing along with anticipation or excitement. Then a glissando brings us back to the the childlike motif. Here, the kick descends into a sub-bass that is felt more than heard. The song final notes hang on as the song fades out.
This gorgeous lead-off track really sets the tone for the album and resonates long after hearing it. The passing of time marked by a single repeated note, the questions posed by the elegant motif, the driving 4/4 rhythm and synths that morph and change all combine to build a great mental adventure underscored by a lovely melody. The title “Symmetry Slice” may allude to the possibility of symmetric time reversal (at least in our minds), with a durationless ‘slice’ of time containing everything we know and are. The song itself is equal parts of innocence and ominous – perhaps as a signal to hold onto core values in light of constant threats.
The repeating 4-note piano melodies at the start of this soaring track are hesitant – unsure of where they are going, and turning 90-degree musical angles until resounding major chords and sequences slowly lead the way, eventually accompanied by a French horn. The hi-hats and beat kick in, but the ‘hesitant’ piano still wanders around in the background. The full 4/4 beat kicks in, providing a solid foundation from which to build on. Many of items come into play during the breakdown: sample-and-hold sounds bounce around, bongos appear, and (most notably) an arpeggiated piano kicks in (a la Knight Moves). The tension rises, and resolution is reached in the form of a subtle shift back to a pounding kick. A vocoded voice repeats something rather unintelligible. The piano arpeggio is raised an octave, which heightens tension, followed by a glissando, then the hesitant piano and some friendly robotic sounds and descending tones that fade.
Historically, anthems were songs written to be sung by a choir for worship services. Here, Anthem serves as the modern version of an inspiring song. The opening piano melody represents someone who is unsure and wanders a musical desert, until the major chords guide the wanderer to a happier place. This is exactly the feeling that traditional anthems were meant to evoke; a lack of direction that could only be found by finding a higher spirit. Here, the relationship may be more Earthly – as if someone who was lost has found their kindred spirit. This track would be absolutely wonderful live – either as the original, or as a modified (and challenging) solo piano version.
Dual melodies dance around each other until Gonzales kicks in with a somewhat distant chant and arpeggio. A dark synth eventually underscores the chanting – no ‘beats’ thus far. Then a breathless Feist-like voice responds to Gonzales’ chant (which sounds reminiscent of Tchaikovsky or possibly an ancient Hebrew chant). All the while, the dual melodies and arpeggio continue their elegant ‘dance’. The song breaks down completely with the female voice being transformed and fading away with a gentle piano sequence. A metamorphosis takes place, song kicks back in with a beat, chants, and synth noodling before Gonzales’ chant finally joins the female voice. The beat subsides, and the song fades on arpeggiated chords.
The dual melodies may represent the male and female voices swirling around each other, aware of each other presence, but not necessarily ‘together’ (yet). The male and female voices finally commit during the breakdown, and celebrate each other on ‘the other side’. A very beautiful ‘swirly’ song that emulates the feeling when people meet and know they are right for each other.
Chance the Rapper guests in this 3/4 (or 6/8?) rap with a lovely waltz-like quality. Gonzales rapped over 6/8 in the unspeakable Chilly Gonzlaes (“Supervillain Music”). The piano is lively throughout, and the background horns provide some lift. The breakdown is classic Gonzales piano; a lovely morphing chord sequence that makes it way back to the main rhythm of the song. Eventually, the beat layers on in a halting manner, with Chance yelling out “step-1-2-step-1-2″ in “army” waltz fashion. The tension builds in volume and instruments, leading towards the the final delicate music-box piano sequence, a lovely ending which is also a highlight of the song.
Tap Dance is pure entertainment – a lively song with a positive message about supporting and encouraging each other for for shared success. The opening lyrics indicate a confrontation that was turned around into the characters moving from intimidation to imitation and support. (“innovate, indicate, strategize, then you can syndicate”). Gonzales’ piano breakdown is a mini adventure on its own with a repeated, descending chord sequence (a coffee break), fading completely before returning as a circular repeated chord pattern for the build-up to the finale. The cumulation of instruments for the finale provides “hard work” and excitement imagery before the final reward – relaxation and play in the form of a high-register ‘fanciful’ sequence.
Melodica-like sounds and a solitary snare kick off this track, which quickly moves to a repeated chord sequence and Boys Noize ultra bass. When Gonzales’ piano kicks in, it’s mainly in background arpeggios that rise and move to the foreground over a futuristic layer. A female voice ‘la-la-las’ in the background, before the chord sequence returns, but it has brought a friend in the form of an ominous bass lead synth. All the while, Gonz’s arpeggios hammer away moving from foreground to background. A final breakdown and the song stops cold.
The drum cadence establishes a military theme set throughout the song – somewhat reminiscent of preparing for battle or (as the title suggests) heralding the arrival of someone special. The piano ebbs and flows as thoughts enter and leave the consciousness of the song. Just past the breakdown, Boys Noize’s huge bass synth envelops the soundscape, possibly denoting the moment when the special guest makes their appearance. Towards the end, the chords become more and more delicate, then stop cold. This song and the following short instrumentals seem to be used as mid-point transitions from the upbeat ‘tap dance’ to the downtempo start of Together. Here, the sound is very far from the ‘home’ of Symmetry Slice.
A very warm synth leads-in, creating a smoky retro atmosphere. A Depeche Mode-inspired sort of voice rises and fades out, followed by more scene-setting synths. A bit crushed descending tone fades the short track away.
The mental imagery is set quickly on this short transition track, which is reminiscent of analog synth composer/producer Harold Faltermeyer. By now, the joy of Tap Dance has been completely replaced with a more foreboding feeling. The bit crushed descending tone is a perfect transition to the bit crushed opening chords of Together.
Fuzzy and distorted melancholy piano chords kick off this track, which repeat and then ride a downtempo beat and arpeggiated synths. The first ‘movement’ of the song is piano-driven, which then gives way to a soft Vangelis-like synth moving around the soundscape with descending piano tones running in the background while a drum beat fades in. The synth bass and ‘hi-hat’ finally join in which herald a fantastically updated 70s disco banger. An electric guitar strums over a disco beat while what sound like “Good Times” samples are heard chopped up in the background. The disco beat gives way to the now decidedly downtempo and melancholy piano (at least compared to the uplifting disco beat).
Together is a wonderfully crafted song; the intro and outro solo piano seem to telegraph the sadness of being alone, while the middle dance section is what it feels like when you and your best friend go out and paint the town red. Obviously, it’s better together, but the happy times are made to seem that much happier when they are bookended by the melancholy piano.
Muted and processed piano and bass dance around to kick off this sublime composition mixed in with a recording of someone rummaging around for something. The elegant and uplifting quality of the performance with its sweeping background strings is reminiscent of Morricone’s work. The piano is stately and always seems to take the ‘high-road’.
The ‘Projectionist’ title is a great choice, as it works on many levels: from playing on the ‘soundtrack’ nature of this piece, to the fact that Gonzales is a projectionist though his music, and so on. This is a very delicate track, and Gonzales is playing at the top of his game – right down to the last grace notes. This could have very easily have been on Gonzales’ solo piano records, but here, the melody and harmony are reinforced by the gentle strings. The main chords are struck in succession with a distant shifting response. The track is uplifting, yet warm and comfortable – with the main motif calling out to listeners. Absolutely stunning.
A joyous beginning starts off this track (not unlike Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or Dawn from the William Tell Overture) complete with gentle piano, digital birds chirping away, and violin section accompaniment. Soon, the mood turns dark and rather sinister. The synth landscape enters Tron-like in its distorted darkness. A distorted thumping rhythm hammers away, eventually leading to a fabulous retro-electric guitar solo. All the while the piano struggles to be heard in the background – finally shining through the clouds with airy arpeggios, only to be banished once more. A reggae-style beat whittles away on the off-beat. Surprisingly, the piano doesn’t return during the final breakdown, which leaves a rather foreboding taste.
With its extreme transition from the serene to the hardcore, Done Deal definitely sounds like someone made a Faustian decision. The duality of the track makes it seem as if Boys Noize grabbed one of Gonzales’ working tracks and transitioned the lilt into an amazing adventure that tells a dark tale. Anyone who studies 70s and 80s music knows that there were one of two certainties in a hit song: a guitar or saxophone solo. Boys Noize has obviously studied and appreciates the value of a great solo.
As a pre-release track, In Silence was ideal to showcase the talents of Gonzales and Boys Noize and introduce the public to “Octave Minds”. We previously reviewed the track here.
Symmetry Slice Part 2
The final track is a Symmetry motif-reprise, but the energy is concentrated in just over a minute. The start (after the cymbal crescendo) is a rather ominous chord sequence – but wait – here come the arpeggios to save us, followed by the main motif. A veritable orchestra of piano dances through the soundscape, accompanied by breathless synths.
Uplifting and inspirational, the contrast of dark chords and uplifting arpeggios reminds us that joy always feels more joyful after a low. The reprise of the Symmetry Slice motif provides familiarity and resolution for listeners – we have finally returned home, but this time we are able to answer the questions posed in the leading track. Life is an adventure – think big, celebrate, share it with someone and remember to help each other. This track is far too short, which is the intent or possibly even the message.
Listening to Octave Minds’ debut reinforces Gonzales’ “man of his time” mantra; he constantly learns and grows to ensure that he doesn’t find himself caught in the trap of catering to a narrow audience. As we’ve seen through the years, being a “man of his time” involves taking risks, and here, the brilliant collaboration with Boys Noize proves that Gonzales’ can deftly cross old-world skills with modern musical styles. The net effect is music that can speak volumes without words or resorting to pop music ‘ear worm’ tricks that lack the mental and emotional impact of a well-crafted composition. In many ways, the music reflects Gonzales’ notion to rediscover the joy of thinking combined with the wisdom of experience to create new and yet unseen (or unheard) experiences. The album is the culmination of years of experience, great mutual respect, musical passion, and a dedication to pursuing a higher standard. As Gonzales humbly put it in an interview for working with Boys Noize on the Ivory Tower soundtrack, “It was just peanut butter cups; you take chocolate and peanut butter, it just tastes good together, nothing more than that.” Well, we think it’s a lot more than that and are already looking forward to the next bite.
Octave Minds debut is available from their their website, or through iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Rough Trade.