I saw the new James Bond movie the other day. If you have even a remote love for Bond in your heart, this one is definitely worth seeing in the theaters. I’ve seen just about every movie in the series, including the weird ones like the original Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again, and I feel confident in saying that this new one ranks easily among the best. However, I’m here to talk about the music of Bond.
As even the most casual Bond fan knows, a major component of each movie is the opening theme song. Adele does justice to the legacy with her excellent song for Skyfall. Still, it’s hard to beat the queen of all Bond singers, Shirley Bassey. With three songs in the Bond theme repertoire, she sets the gold standard (get it?) that everyone else has to live up to. She manages to effortlessly combine sensuality, tongue-in-cheek playfulness, and power in her singing, all hallmarks of the Bond mythos itself. Other singers have managed to hit the mark on one or two of these, but with the possible exception of Tom Jones effort for Thunderball, only Bassey has managed to pull off the entire trifecta so well.
Here she is singing the song live at Royal Albert Hall circa 1964-65. She absolutely kills it.
For those who might not know, I work as a sound designer and composer for a company called ArenaNet, and we currently make a game called Guild Wars 2. I feel very lucky to here every day, because I get the chance to do all sorts of fun stuff with all sorts of smart and talented people. Lately, I’ve been getting the chance to work on more music for the game, and I’ve been having a blast.
The first Guild Wars established an annual tradition around Halloween where new events, art, and characters would pop up in the world. It revolved around a character named the Mad King Thorn, a jack-o-lantern-headed lunatic who would appear once a year to heckle and terrorize players. Since Guild Wars 2 just shipped a couple of months ago, this Halloween is his first appearance in the new game.
Since the style and mood of the game art is very much in the Tim Burton vein, I thought we needed a suitable piece of music in the Danny Elfman vein. That ended up being the Halloween Theme. I was also asked to do some more dramatic, tense music for a specific map that involves you running up a clock tower in a set amount of time, and that ended up being the Mad King Clock Tower piece, which has its origins in the rhythm and melody of the Halloween Theme.
Here’s an excellent video for a Gotye instrumental by the animation studio Rubber House. It has kind of a nightmarish Golden Books vibe to it, or like it’s some weird foreign knock off of a proper children’s book.
This was brought to my attention via the Twitter feed of the fantastically talented Marlo Meekins, who, in addition to having the best name ever, also contributed some design and background work to the video. Follow her Tumblr blog for your fill of funny and twisted comic strips.
James Taylor demonstrating how to play Fire and Rain.
I love James Taylor’s music, and I have no problem saying so. I saw him live several years ago, and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. He was doing a stripped down thing, accompanied occasionally by a pianist and what he called his “drum machine”. On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss his music as light, smoothed over fluff, but that does it a disservice. Between songs, he would often explain the context in which they were written, revealing his incredible sense of humor, which is often quite dark. He makes no secret of his struggles with drugs and depression, and while in recent years he seems to be much happier, I sometimes get the sense he remains haunted by some of his personal demons.
I stumbled on these videos the other day, and I’m really glad I did. I think Taylor rarely gets the credit he deserves for his guitar playing, which is deceptively sophisticated and unique. Watching his left hand, I’m quite surprised at the way he fingers the chords. They’re all fairly basic, but he fingers them almost entirely backwards from the way they are traditionally taught. I think it allows him some more mobility to play the walking bass lines and suspensions that are a part of his trademark sound, although it could just be that’s how he learned to play them and developed his style around that. Either way, it’s a rare insight into a beautiful song, straight from the man who wrote it.
Also of note are the rather intimidating finger nails on his right hand. I know many guitar players who primarily play finger style and have hefty nails, but I still find it jarring when I see someone with huge talons. In an earlier video in this same series, he actually explains his nail maintenance procedure. He reinforces them with layers of fiber glass tape and glue, and even has a little kit he carries around with him expressly for this purpose. He talks about going into a nail salon and getting fake ones put on at one point. I would love to have seen the looks on the faces of the people working there as this tall, lanky, folksy gentleman walked in asking for some help with his nails.
I’ve been revisiting some old favorites lately. I listened to a lot of Yes during my college years. An unhealthy amount, perhaps. I was mostly into their real classic period, i.e. The Yes AlbumthroughTales from Topographic Oceans (which has a debatable “classic” status among the faithful, it seems, but it might be my favorite Yes album).
While Yes is easy to vilify as the poster children for the excesses of ’70s rock in general and progressive rock in particular, I think it masks the fact that their music is often quite simple at the core level, it’s just wrapped up in virtuosic musicianship. For example, the main riff idea for this song* is just three chords: E major, A major, and D major. Watching Steve Howe’s hands as he plays them, they are the most straightforward, primary forms of these chords, the kind that every guitar player learns in their first lesson. Of course, the band develops it far beyond this simple idea, but it’s that easy entry point that later progressive bands like Dream Theater lack. Dream Theater fans might say that a more challenging listening experience is the point, but I prefer a more balanced approach.
This performance comes from the band’s 1972 tour in support of Close to the Edge. The entire band is on fire here, in particular Howe’s guitar playing. He plays the parts on the record almost note for note, but there is so much more intensity in them, I find it much more engaging. The country-tinged intro is a great touch, as well, and showcases a side of his playing that I often forget about. It’s interesting to watch his right hand as he not only uses a pick but has this kind of claw finger technique that he mixes in effortlessly. Unfortunately, his guitar solo about two-thirds of the way through the song is of dubious quality, in my opinion, but he pulls it out towards the end.
This performance also showcases Alan White on drums. White joined the band for this tour to replace the departed Bill Bruford, who had left to play with those other prog-rock stalwarts King Crimson. White’s drumming is harder hitting and lacks the loose, jazzy feel of Bruford’s. After spending a few years playing in the Plastic Ono Band, I can’t imagine how jarring the transition must have been for him. Though he didn’t play on the original recording of this song, he does a great job giving it his own spin.
* I know it’s a bit laughable to think of a song like this as having a single primary riff, but it’s the part between 1:49 and 2:16.
Jon Lord died today. As essential as Ian Gillan’s voice and Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar are to the Deep Purple sound, Jon Lord’s monstrous organ played just as integral a role. Listen to the opening riff of their most famous song, Smoke On The Water. The first couple of times through, it’s just Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. The riff is legendary and a rite of passage for anyone who has ever picked up a guitar, in reality, it’s actually quite wimpy sounding on its own. Howver, the third time through, the riff is doubled with Jon Lord’s dirty, growling organ. Only then does it sound like the heavy, crushing riff of legend.
In honor of of the man, here is a great live video of Deep Purple performing one of my favorite songs of theirs, Child In Time. As much of a showcase as it is for Ian Gillan’s voice, Jon Lord gets equal billing, with the primary riff being played on his organ, and a blistering solo starting at around 3:33. Rest in peace.
In a rare moment of discovering music I like made after 1981 or so, I’ve been getting way, way into Little Dragon lately. Yukimi Nagano has an excellent voice, and it’s really refreshing to see a band whose sound is heavily electronic execute a song flawlessly in a live setting.