Today marks one year since the end of our recording session at Soup Studios.
There are two tracks yet to be released from these sessions: Ma'adim Vallis and the tentatively titled, R. Tentative because everything about Domes has been a collaboration; naming songs is no different and we do this almost as a ritual just before release.
These have become interesting moments of reflection upon the meaning of a song which can be a nebulous and pleasantly elusive thing. Nick Cave describes his songs as occupying a “liminal space” and his writing process as “incremental” such that meaning reveals itself after the fact.
I have very little control over what songs I write. They are constructed, incrementally, in the smallest of ways, the greater meaning revealing itself after the fact. They are often slippery, amorphous things, with unclear trajectories — position-free attempts at understanding the mysteries of the heart.
This resonates as our lyric-writing was iterative. I’ve ultimately derived interpretation from the (apparent) meaninglessness of an abstract expressionistic approach and the influence of my writing partners. Naming a song after extrapolating the story feels in a sense forensic but apt for us. We don't know what it is until it's done.
You may get a sense at an early stage of a thread or cadence that suggests a direction or theme. However, we intentionally worked with objective project codes (MB018 became Malady, for example) that were partly a reference system for our library of ideas but also a means of avoiding any early association with a particular narrative. So it was that Ma'adim Vallis had the working title A002 (arrangement two in our agile approach of synthesising ideas). The point is, I don't know if a line like, "Luminescent anglerfish," would have survived any other deterministic process.
This fluid view also allows for the triangulation of other references in often surprising ways. That’s not about imbuing the song’s identity with tenuous validation but rather the discovery of other lenses through which to keep the analysis open and interesting. For example, at some point I noted this dialogue from The QA (season two, episode seven) which informed my discussions with the band about Ma'adim Vallis:
Our ancestors, the hunters, the gatherers, they looked up at the moon, and they saw a goddess, something to be worshiped from afar. We looked up at the moon and wanted to land there. The entire space race was all about who could put a man on the moon first. We were obsessed. But it wasn't until after we landed there that we realized the true prize. Turning around and looking back at the Earth. Seeing that living blue planet, it cracked open quite a few minds. A single spot of life surrounded by darkness. Every astronaut whose had that perspective described the Earth as a miracle, a dazzling overview. It changed human consciousness forever.
In this way, the title becomes representative of the song through curation and post-rationalisation which must precede the naming of the thing—it speaks to the creative journey, not the destination. Henry Moore also suggested that being slightly oblique in titling a work is a way of optimising audience engagement:
All art should have a certain mystery and should make demands on the spectator. Giving a sculpture or a drawing too explicit a title takes away part of that mystery so that the spectator moves on to the next object, making no effort to ponder the meaning of what he has just seen. Everyone thinks that he or she looks but they don't really, you know.
This is one song in the project that did have a strong narrative essence for me. I remember an online mixing session where we were doing some extensive experimentation with synths and vocal effects. Eventually, the possibilities became fatiguing and our producer Dave Holmes asked for some guidance on the storyboard of the passage at 2:42. I found myself describing a scene just below the surface of the lyrics; something between Kubrick, Nolan and Miyazaki. Somehow, it helped.
Earlier, Holmes worked with Paul McLaney in Gramsci and their track, Fall to Earth, is one of my favouite pieces by a New Zealand group. That the dissociative lyrics where improvised adds to the otherworldly nature of the track. Through Holmes, McLaney became part of my network and I've had occasion to talk to him about music and guitar. McLaney has just released masterful new record, Inheritance, and I don't think he'd mind me sharing from our recent chat that he considers this his best work. It's interesting to think about how we value our own efforts. For me, what I consider the great moments from my bands is generally not aligned with the opinions of others. The experience of the arts is necessarily subjective. My reply to him was:
Have occasionally and momentarily grazed up against what I think my best work might be and I am so glad for you that you are holding that experience. It’s a sense of having arrived, I think.
To be vulnerable, performing the scream at 3:06 was an unexpectedly personal moment—I erupted in a sort of laugh-cry afterwards. I should note that we laughed so much during this project. Four kiwis reunited in a foreign land and doing something extraordinarily different from our daily lives were ideal circumstances for hilarity. That humour was often a necessary reprieve from the intense sprints of creative focus and emotional energy expenditure.
We were also acutely aware that while screams-on-pitch were stylistically relevant to the rock/metal sub-genres where we referencing, there would always be a huge margin for error. Expressive performance could easily, quickly, even subtly erode into bathos.
So, when I sung what I did in the way I wanted it to be, it was a coalescence of aspiration, confrontation and effort that was ultimately rewarding. It was funny to hear that it worked (in my view) though vaguely unclear whether it was ridiculous or cool—a kind of joyful thing. Joy in metal. Yeah, OK.
Ma'adim Vallis started with an idea of Brendon's, BK006, that immediately excited us. More post-rock in its original form, it contained two sections that today constitute the verse and pre-chorus. I was pleased to learn the guitar parts from him. The riff lurches across the bars in unexpected rhythmic placements; Holmes worked us hard on these in pre-production to achieve the right cohesion as a band. There was the opportunity to subtly interpret his chord structures through my favourite guitar tuning to add some additional colour. It was all extremely satisfying.
The chorus chord progression arose in a conversational way as Dan and I tried to find something open-sounding that would be complimentary to the tense harmonic structure and stabbing rhythmic idiosyncrasies of the piece. With these elements, the reprise became an apparent opportunity for the performers and listeners to gather themselves ahead of a deluge.
Interestingly Ma'adim Vallis (A002) was a particular challenge to mix. The technical engineering details are beyond me, so I won't try to explain except to share the more visceral mastering notes that Holmes prepared for Abbey Road:
Overall: I want this record to have teeth, and feel muscular. I want it to feel fun too, and make everyone do the “who farted” face with the heaviness. I think it would be good to hear an overall track compression on the songs that has bounce - I’m not afraid for the mastering to be coloured in that way.
A002: this track has been a problem child for me. I’d suggest focussing on the verses 37" to 1:02" and 1:38" - 2:16" first. They need to groove, feel free to let compression play a big part here. Gotta make the heads nod. I feel the rest of the tune should function just fine once those verses work. Special attention for 1:12-1:15 & 2:25-2:29 (little prechorus riff). I’d like those to feel extra Clobbery (if that makes sense?). Those two moments can be extra pounded.
Capital C on "Clobbery." Just great notes.
A year on; two songs left. Where to next? We'd do it all again in a heartbeat notwithstanding lockdowns and border closures. We do, however, have material enough to make meaningful progress on the next batch of songs. It requires more logistics consideration and financial planning but in the meantime, it's great to be deep into the development of the next lyrical cache.