Saturday, October 1, 2016

Opeth - Sorceress Review

When it comes to legendary metal bands like Opeth, some fans don't so much become fans of the music, they fall in love with the band. And who could blame them? Back in 1999, Opeth was the stuff of dreams for any metalhead, walking around wearing a Morbid Angel shirt and growling so sultrily. But then between 2005 and 2008 Opeth started hanging out with more psychedelic friends and the relationship got strained. Opeth just wanted a bit more space to be its own thing rather than going to hang out at the latest Horrendous show and the relationship started to drift apart. And things got really strained in 2011 when Opeth started wearing brown corduroy bell bottoms around town. It was like Opeth had become another person, and seeing them around town just reminded everyone of how things used to be. It would be easier if Opeth were dead. At least then you could remember the old times without having to see them having fun and acting all weird and selfish. In 2016 it's time to buy that lovelorn fan a drink and have the talk. They will always have Blackwater Park, but people grow and change and you have to learn to let go. Opeth has moved on. They are happy. Maybe it's time that you move on as well instead of waiting for Opeth to come back and say that you were right all the time.

Because really, Opeth are doing all right without you. They may not be listening to Voivod as much or stomping on their HM-2 distortion pedals and growling, but they've been playing the shit out of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and some really obscure Italian stuff that's quality music, and they've been filtering it through their own tastes and abilities and coming up with some interesting results that keep things fresh while still sounding like they fit alongside all that stuff they used to play back when you still thought they were the one for you.

Take Sorceress for example. Parts of it are a familiar reminder of the past. "Chrysalis" could slot into an Opeth playlist heavy on the Ghost Reveries era without seeming at all out of place. The same goes for "Seventh Sojourn, " which has the same sort of Eastern influence found on "Atonement" (or on the last half of "Closure" for that matter). "Sorceress" shares a sort of stuttering majesty with the end of "Harlequin Forest." Half of the album sounds exactly like what someone would expect it to if they were to consider for a moment that the album was written directly following the band taking a break from supporting Pale Communion and doing a series of dates where they played Ghost Reveries in its entirety*.

But those touchpoints don't really do the album itself, or the band, justice, just as saying the band has become Mikael's solo project doesn't give credit to how amazingly the musicians performing on this album are communicating with each other and playing some beautiful, intricate, dynamic music. Svalberg's keyboards are more integral to the sound than ever and his playing is full of feeling and life. Åkesson's solos are things of intricate beauty that transcend his technical skill, displaying how much soulful tone he can cram into a part where a lesser guitarist would just shred. (He also co-wrote the beautiful "Strange Brew," putting the lie to all of the solo project talk.) Axenrot continues to astound us with how much he has grown beyond being a death metal drummer, fitting seamlessly into even the quietest and jazziest moments of the album without a single stumble. And Méndez, ever the talented bassist, spends much of "Seventh Sojourn" as the improvisational voice of the band, putting in some of the most intriguing bass lines I've heard.

All things you'd miss if you kept listening for signs of your old love, rather than meeting up to see where an old friend's life had taken them since we last saw them a few years ago.

It's not Blackwater Park. It's not even Pale Communion. What it is, though, is pretty damn good music that shows a band continuing to grow and develop and come up with new things to say.

*Which was awesome.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Nut and Bridge Width: the Other Important Dimensions in Guitar Playing

So a lot of people have appreciated my discussions of scale length and pickup placement. Lately, though, I've been thinking about the other dimension that affects playing -- width. There's not a lot of discussion of it where electric guitar players are concerned beyond the big hands = wide nut conversations, but there's more to it than that. I'll get into the details of it in a moment, but first a bit of context.

A few months back, I bought a Cordoba Mini R guitar. It's a nylon string classical guitar with a 20" scale length, but close to a full width and string spacing classical nut (2") and bridge. (It's tuned up a fourth to keep the strings from getting floppy.) It's a very good little guitar and so much fun to play, and the extra width at the neck really helps to keep the guitar from feeling as cramped as it might if I were having to deal with the closeness of the frets from the shortened scale. (For comparison, put a capo at the fifth fret of your guitar, especially if it has 24 frets. It's not quite the same, but it's close enough to get a feel for things.)

Moving back and forth between my Hagstrom (24.75" scale, 1.69" nut), my Fender acoustic (25.3" scale, 1.69" nut) and the Cordoba Mini (20" scale, 2" nut), the thing I most noticed was not the width of the nut so much as the string spacing at the bridge. After fingerpicking the Cordoba, the Fender feels a little close and the Hagstrom has me stumbling a bit between strings and playing less cleanly. This started me thinking more about string spacing and nut width and what sorts of changes I'd need to make, part wise, to change how the Hagstrom felt while going full Beck/Knopfler and playing with my fingers rather than a pick -- my habit more often than not these days.

The string spacing on the Cordoba is 63mm from A to a. The spacing on the Hagstrom is the standard 52mm associated with the tune-o-matic bridge and PAF style humbucker combination. Tune-o-matic That's an 11mm difference -- a little under a half inch -- in width, split between the four middle strings. That's 3mm, (not quite 1/8") more space between strings, which feels like a lot of difference. I haven't measured the Fender's string spacing, but it feels like it is somewhere between, and closer to the Hagstrom than to the Cordoba. Ideally, I think I'd like something in between the Cordoba and the Fender as far as string spacing goes to balance out the speed of picking and the comfort of fingerpicking.

To get this, I'd have to replace the saddle on the Fender and notch it with the wider spacing (and if the change were significant enough, I might have to redo the pin holes in the bridge or replace the bridge entirely to keep a nice, straight pull on those strings). Likewise, on the Hagstrom, I'd need to re-notch or replace the saddles for the tune-o-matic or get a replacement roller bridge with adjustable width rollers. Of course I'd also have to keep an eye on the fingerboard to make sure that the E strings didn't get too close to the edge (hey, maybe that's what Yes meant) as the string spacing changes. And I'd also have to pay attention to the bridge pickup pole positions to make sure that the strings stayed as much within the magnetic field of each respective pole as possible.

If the string spacing were important enough, and the neck had enough space to support the extra width, then any problems with the bridge pickup could be solved by either switching from a standard width humbucker to a slightly wider pickup built for a Floyd Rose trem. Or you could go for something with larger pole pieces to keep the sweet spot larger. Or skip the individual pole pieces altogether and go with a blade-style pickup or alumitone. Worst case, there's a blade-style or alumitone built for a seven string to get you all the pickup width you might need. And you might not need anything at all. My instinct is always to be conservative and see how things work before changing out everything.