It’s that time of year again. The time where I look at the piles and piles of CDs and records around me and think “HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?” then organize them into my favorites of the year and post about it to justify the expense. So with no further ado…here’s the list of my top ten (and then some!) albums of 2018! I’ll write more after the list (including runners up and other stuff I feel like I should mention), but for those who want the TL:DR version, here it is:
Sloan – “12”
J Mascis – “Elastic Days”
The Decemberists – “I’ll Be Your Girl”
Coheed & Cambria – “The Unheavenly Creatures”
Amanda Shires – “To the Sunset”
Frank Turner – “Be More Kind”
Guided By Voices – “Space Gun”
John Prine – “The Tree of Forgiveness”
Father John Misty – “God’s Favorite Customer”
The Jayhawks – “Back Roads and Abandoned Motels”
Live Album of the Year: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – “Live at the Ryman”
Single of the Year: Rufus Wainwright – “Sword of Damocles”
Favorite Concert of the Year: Jason Isbell in St. Louis, September 10, 2018.
Okay. So I think that’s a decent list. It was difficult to put this year’s list together, especially when 2017 had an embarrassment of riches to choose from while 2018 was frankly a little underwhelming. It seemed like this year took FOREVER to even get started musically, despite some promising early-year releases from the likes of David Byrne and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (neither of whom made it into my top 10). It just didn’t seem like there was much to pick from that was stellar. Which, in fairness, did make narrowing it down a lot easier. And did make the handful of stellar releases mean a lot more.
I arrived at Sloan‘s “12” as my number 1 pick because it’s the album I’ve returned to the most from this year’s new releases. It’s a fun pop-rock album from one of Canada’s longest standing rock bands. They’re great in concert and great in the studio and are nice guys, to boot. “12” really should’ve been everybody’s go-to Springtime listen this year, and if you missed it you need to be sure to add it to next year’s list.
In at #2, J Mascis‘ “Elastic Days” came out fairly recently and I picked it up the day it hit the shelves. There’s not a bad song on it and it keeps the listener engaged throughout. If you’re expecting to get a bunch of Dinosaur Jr leftovers on a Mascis solo albums you’ll either be disappointed or relieved to know that’s never the case. When he goes solo and signs his own name to it, you get a much more relaxed, lush listen and it’s a joy to hear it.
The Decemberists‘ “I’ll Be Your Girl” was one of the earlier releases that I picked up this year, having recently become a fan of the band, and I’m glad to see it show up on the Top Ten list, much more so to see it crack not only the top 5 but the top THREE. Immediately catchy, upbeat, earthy, and fun, it deserves to be on everyone’s list. “Everything is Awful” is one of the best songs of the year.
I got into Coheed & Cambria a few years ago and am blown away by the musicianship and storytelling they employ on each album. “The Unheavenly Creatures” is no exception and may even be the album that’s blown me away the most right out of the wrapper, which is what landed it on this list at #4. I picked it up on vinyl and it’s 3 LPs, so you’ve got to turn the album over several times to make it through to the end. The first time I listened to it, I don’t think I sat down at ALL between flips of the platters. Heavy and melodic but with a pop sensibility just beneath the surface, this one’s a BIG winner. They brought their A-game from moment one.
Amanda Shires doesn’t seem to love getting stuck with the “Americana” label and seems to have made a serious effort to be thought of as a “Rock” writer on “To the Sunset.” And she did a damn fine job of it. But at the same time, an album that features the violin/fiddle as a main instrument will always fall into the “Americana” world, no matter what you do. And there’s no shame to it. It’s a great Americana record. It’s a great Rock record. It’s a great record. And it’s in at #5.
I’ve been a Frank Turner fan since the first time I heard him. Acoustic English Folk Punk would be a fair way to describe him…but in recent years, he’s taken a far more electric edge that he does just as well, and that’s where we find him on “Be More Kind,” my choice for #6. Energetic and angry, but with a deep yearning for peace, “Be More Kind” is not only a great listen, it’s great advice. As is my favorite lyric on the album: “Let’s make America great again by making racists ashamed again.”
Moving on, we find the mighty Guided By Voices in at #7 with their surprisingly ONLY release in 2018, “Space Gun.” GBV/Robert Pollard is know for putting out so many albums you could be forgiven for missing a few (dozen) in your collection…but you’re not going to want to miss this one. It sounds exactly like Guided By Voices. But it sounds like them when they’re FOCUSED. And that’s a good thing. I feel like getting Bobby Bare Jr in the band was one of the best choices Uncle Bob could’ve made–I can really hear the benefit of that on the recent releases.
Country/Folk/Whatever legend John Prine put out an overwhelmingly good album in this year’s “The Tree of Forgiveness.” It’s one of those albums that as soon as I finished listening to it, I rushed to Facebook to tell everyone I know to do likewise. I hope people did. It’s the work of a man at the tail-end of his career, giving us lessons that should last us a while. It probably deserves to be higher on the list than #8 and if I were doing genre-specific lists, believe me it WOULD be. If you don’t pick up “The Tree of Forgiveness” you’ll be missing out on one of this year’s most lush and warming listens.
I was highly critical of Father John Misty‘s 2017 release “Pure Comedy” for being what I believe I referred to as “too one-note,” especially lyrically. In 2018, “God’s Favorite Customer” corrected that on all points. It’s very hard to describe Misty’s vibe (also known as J Tillman). Sometimes there are trumpets. That…doesn’t help does it? It’s like he took Lawrence Welk or one of the old-school bandleaders and shoved a rock band up his ass then told everybody to pay more attention to the lyrics than they normally would and then started dancing funny as a distraction. That’s it. And he did it to perfection this time, placing him at #9 on my list.
I’ve been up and down on the Jayhawks for a long time, which makes me glad to have found them cracking into the top 10 this year with “Back Roads and Abandoned Motels.” I almost didn’t put it on the list because I had reservations about the eligibility of the record. It’s mostly made up of material that band-leader Gary Louris initially wrote/released for other projects and/or wrote for other artists. But since it’s the original songwriter offering original recordings with his band, I think it works. And the songs are really great. So it made the list. Yay!
I also listed my favorite live album, concert, and single of the year above. Jason Isbell is represented there twice. I’ve raved about the concert he did in St. Louis this year in multiple places (most gushingly on my podcast in the week that followed it). I’ve raved about pretty much all of his music over the past years in pretty much every possible venue. I’ve been evangelical about Jason’s work in recent years. And he deserves every mention and every rave review. Pick up the “Ryman” release and play it loud.
Rufus Wainwright‘s “Sword of Damocles” single came out of NOWHERE a few months back after he performed it on the James Corden show. It’s a politically charged ballad that fits this time in history to perfection. And Rufus, of course, sings it so, so beautifully. I also saw Rufus in concert (for the first time) this year with the St. Louis Symphony backing him and if any show could’ve toppled the Isbell show this year, it would have been that one. Rufus is a gift God has given us. You need to accept that gift. (There’s that evangelism again…)
(I promise this will be brief.)
Elvis Costello – “Look Now” – I was sad not to put this in the top 10 because it’s exactly what I want from Elvis Costello at this point in his career and it’s like listening to a fine wine. Beautiful record.
Kurt Vile – “Bottle It In” – Dreamy, guitar driven music that you can get lost in. What’s not to love?
Metric – “Art of Doubt” – I only picked this up recently and I feel like if I had another few weeks with it, it might be up in the top 10. Great listen.
David Byrne – “American Utopia” – Byrne has always been weird. This is no exception. I like it a lot and it turns on a DIME. The first time I listened to it, I didn’t realize I had my player on shuffle and I heard it out of order. Then later I heard it in the right order. It didn’t change a thing.
Laura Jane Grace – “Bought to Rot” – I like this album a lot more than I liked LJG’s main band’s last project (Against Me’s “Shape Shift With Me”). It feels focused and like she worked hard on getting what she wanted out of the songs. My greatest criticism is my greatest praise and that is that the lyrics are incredibly contradictory and in places flat-out incorrect. Her song about hating Chicago and apparently all of Missouri is so geographically wrong that I wonder if she’s ever actually been to either one. And what could be more punk than being so arrogantly fucking wrong?
OTHER STUFF I LIKED:
(This will be even shorter.)
Bottle Rockets – “Bit Logic”
Mumford & Sons – “Delta”
Trampled By Turtles – “Life is Good on the Open Road”
High on Fire – “Electric Messiah”
Roger Daltrey – “As Long As I Have You” (Ineligible due to most songs being covers
Greta Van Fleet – “Anthem of the Peaceful Army”
Ray Davies – “Our Country: Americana Act II”
Ghost – “Prequelle”
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Wrong Creatures”
The Get Up Kids – “Kicker” (Ineligible because it’s an EP)
The Hold Steady released a series of two song download-only EPs all of which were great, but none of which were eligible due to the nature of the releases.
Louden Wainwright III – “Surviving Twin” Ineligible because it’s got a lot of old material.
David Bowie – “Glastonbury 2000” – Ineligible because it’s a live album and also an 18 year old performance.
And that was my favorite stuff of 2018! I hope you enjoyed reading it and maybe will pick up a couple of things you’d overlooked before.
Normally I’d name this kind of post with a Simpsons quote in the title, but this one has some real stuff in it, so I’m dropping the gimmick just this once. Here are a number of things I’ve been meaning to write about…
It’s just plain sloppy that I haven’t mentioned on this blog that “*” is now available for FREE (or pay what you want) download at http://derekbrink.bandcamp.com/album/asterisk. Go there and listen to it and download it and tell your friends!
Okay…this one’s serious… If anyone listens to my podcast and more particularly listened to the episode I did with my friend Jim a couple of weeks ago this won’t be exactly NEW news, but it’s probably worth putting out there in more than one medium. I recently saw a counselor to work through a few issues. Basically I’ve been angry for a very long time and I needed to talk to someone about it who doesn’t know me before I eventually–well–turned into my mother and died in my mid 40s. Got some tools to help with that and it was a beneficial experience, but that’s only part of why I’m writing.
The part that is particularly interesting is that over the course of our sessions the counselor poked around asking about prior addictions, etc. As most will know I’ve been open about my decision to quit drinking 5 years ago and smoking 4 years ago. Talking in particular about the drinking the counselor talked to me about the nature of addiction and my reasons for stopping etc. In brief, her assessment was much the same as my own–that my excessive use wasn’t a chemical addiction, but was rather a manifestation of my depression (about which I’ve also been very open). Her words were, “I don’t think we need to talk about your drinking, I think we need to talk about your depression.”
So what does that mean? Well the long and short of it is that after some additional conversations, I think that if someone offered me a beer, it wouldn’t be “falling off the wagon” if I accepted it. Don’t get me wrong, there is a wagon and I’ve been on it for five years, but I do not think that at this point if someone offered me a glass of wine with a nice meal or a beer at a rock concert it would cause a negative spiral or whatever. Over five years, I’ve developed the discipline to not drink at all–and that same discipline would allow me to stop at ONE.
Now this doesn’t mean I’m planning on going whole-hog back into buying beer or keeping bourbon in the house. Being that the root of any heavy drinking I’ve done in the past has been my depression, it remains important to purposely limit my access/exposure or continue abstaining entirely. The latter is fine with me.
One of the major talking points in our meetings was that it likely continues to be a good decision to not drink–there’s nothing wrong with choosing to live in a way that doesn’t hurt you. But now that I better understand the issue…I guess it’s just nice to know that if someone raises a toast, I don’t necessarily just have to stand there like a chump. Even though I might. So…yeah…that was a lot of information to unload all at once. I’d be glad to talk to anyone who has any concerns–believe me I have no intention of making them realities.
Positive news. I’ve been losing some weight. On purpose. Pants are a little loose. I don’t know if anybody can visibly see it yet…but I do need new pants, so that feels pretty great after years of being a fatass. I’m very interested to see what the Holidays do to me though.
I mentioned the podcast, above. I’m still enjoying doing it. But I do plan on doing it a *little* less frequently. I’m going to switch to only doing the show every other week. It’ll help me out a lot in a lot of ways. I’ll be putting a post up about that on the podcast blog soon, too…so this is just the short version.
In the last week I’ve found myself recording something I didn’t really expect to do. For an upcoming Christmas party, to accompany a video, I’ve recorded a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Now…as much as I genuinely love that song (it’s one of my all-time favorites), I do think it’s time for a moratorium on covers of it, and that’s why up until now I’ve never done one. But I ended up doing it as a favor and I also ended up really liking my arrangement. I think I’ve got a take on it that’s kind of different from the ones you normally hear. So…I’m thinking about looking into the copyright costs and maybe releasing it as a single nearer to Christmas. Presently undecided, but I love Leonard Cohen, I love that song, and I’m proud of the work I did on it. It might be nice to have more people than just the one Christmas party hear it… We’ll see…
Of all of the stuff I’ve written above, I might be most nervous about making this known, due to my superstitious nature… I’ve been documenting my struggle with migraines on this blog (and elsewhere) over the past year to two. As most will know, the migraines have presented themselves with visual distortions (common to sufferers) and have been weekly if not more frequent than that for an extended period of time. Well…I haven’t had one for 11 weeks. Which is a record, by FAR. The longest I’d previously gone without one since they started was a month. I’m now almost THREE months in. I don’t know that I’m out of the woods, but it’s been nice thinking about it less… The main thing I’ve changed is that I had stopped taking Ibuprofen right before they “went away” (at least for the past several weeks). I’m wondering if I’d just been taking Ibuprofen in such volume for so long, my brain just flipped out? Who knows? Migraine science is a guess at best…it’s just been nice to see normally for a couple months!
And those are all the major updates. I plan to blog more and better soon (that’s part of why I’m dialing back the podcast–I miss doing this). So hopefully you’ll hear from me sooner than later.
So anyway, on November 11, 2018 I’m going to be releasing my 10th solo album, called “*” (aka “Asterisk”). I’ve been working on it on and off for more than 10 years.
“*” is an album of 13 songs inspired by lessons I’ve learned over the course of many years being a fan of the author Kurt Vonnegut. It works regardless of if you’re a fan or if you’ve never read a single word he’s ever written. But it’s probably better if you’re a fan. It’s not an effort to retell any of Vonnegut’s stories or offer a biography of his life, etc. It’s 13 Derek Brink songs that are imparting the wisdom of the messages and insights I’ve applied to my life from Vonnegut’s work. I recently explained it to a friend thusly: “I used to write songs after reading the Bible. These are songs I wrote after reading ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.'”
I started reading Vonnegut in earnest when I was in college. I read all of his novels within a year and all of his short-stories and essays within two. Out of that, I started writing songs. Some of them were terrible. Some of them weren’t. Nevertheless, I was stashing all of them aside in the “Songs for Kurt” file, thinking I’d eventually put out an album with that title. But I quickly figured out that I wasn’t where I needed to be as a writer or musician to pull it off. And also, it dawned on me that maybe people just wouldn’t be that interested. Who wants to hear an album full of songs about things I learned from Kurt Vonnegut? The market for the album might just be me.
And it took me 10 years to convince myself that writing it for myself (and for Kurt) was enough.
It also took me 10 years to get the confidence in my writing to do it. And to become the guitarist I felt I needed to be. And this. And that. And–you guessed it–the other. Some of the songs that are going on this album have been stewing from the moment I put down “Cat’s Cradle” (the first Vonnegut book I ever read). Some of them were written just prior to production, or even while it was ongoing! (There’s something of an “overture” track that needed to be put off until I was sure what to put in it.) Over the past decade or so, I’d occasionally return to the idea or write something new that I’d stash away thinking maybe SOMEDAY I’d do it. All said, even though I’m never going to be the writer or musician that I want to be in my head, I’m finally the one who could write this album. So the day has come.
I feel like I’m underselling how excited I am about it. I love a lot of these songs. I think the end result is going to be VERY strong. This thing is going to be BANANAS in a way that none of my stuff has ever been before. There’s a 10 minute prog piece that borders on metal. There’s also a traditional Irish ballad. And a song Neil Young could’ve written. And an over-the-top pretentious hodge-podge for the closing track. I’m using a mellotron choir in places, and sparse acoustic guitar in others… It’s all over the place, musically.
And lyrically, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time. My writing took a DEEP turn into the personal in a way that isn’t always accessible roundabout the “Ink-Stained Fingers” album. It was freeing to not be talking about my innermost hopes, dreams, and pain on this one. But that also presented the challenge of how to find the heart of the lyrics I was writing. They had to be in Kurt’s spirit, but I needed to have it reflect myself as well. It was easy to find Kurt. It was a whole other thing finding myself in it. In the end, it turned out that we weren’t that different. Although there are a couple of times where my voice on the album is a little bit of “character work.” When I sound older than I am, just know that I’m Kilgore Trout on those parts, in my head. The rest of the time, I’m Derek. Or somebody. Who knows?
The title is a reference to a Vonnegut joke. Vonnegut illustrated one of his own books and as an example of the quality of his art, he drew an asterisk and captioned it, describing it as a “picture of an asshole.” In the years that followed, the asterisk-hole became a standard reference among fans. It became so closely associated with him that he even incorporated it into his signature. The hardcore Vonnegut fan sees any asterisk in any context and has to restrain themselves from asking who drew the asshole. So…basically…come November 11, I’ll low-key have an album titled “Derek Brink – A Picture of an Asshole” in my catalogue. I cannot express how happy I am about that.
Earlier I noted that I had thought of calling it “Songs for Kurt.” A friend who wasn’t entirely positive about the project when I speculated about doing it (but had not yet started on it) said that people would probably think it was a reference to Kurt Cobain rather than Vonnegut. So “Asshole” it was. So it goes.
The cover will look like this (only bigger):
And the tracklist (which won’t mean anything to most of you) will be this:
The Last Folk Singers — *Excerpt
You’ve Got to Laugh
Malfunction (Or “Broken All Along!)
Now It’s the Woman’s Turn
The Way the World Will End
If It’s Raining
Here We Go Again
Greetings From Far Away
Fight for Peace
We All Just Got Here
And if you’re wondering, November 11 is a Sunday this year. It would have been Kurt Vonnegut’s 96th birthday. Why did I choose his 96th birthday instead of a more significant number? No reason at all.
This blog is kind of becoming “Things I Forgot to Blog for a Couple Months.” Sorry about that. The podcast eats up a lot of what I might have otherwise posted here. But I feel a little like writing, so we’ll do kind of a life-update.
Not a lot is going on.
Thank God that’s over.
Okay seriously though. I’ve got a handful of things going on. I’m writing some music. That’s happening mostly because I moved all of my favorite guitars upstairs into my office area, where I spend a lot of time. So it’s sparking creativity. If nothing else, I’ve had a few ideas sitting around that I needed to get into demo form, so I’m working on that.
I’m also just kind cleaning up in the house. It’s been a mess for a while. Like almost “he might be a hoarder” levels…but I’m not. I’m just incredibly lazy and it gets worse when I live alone. So I’m cleaning and just trying to put stuff where it goes. It’d be nice to have someone over now and again and give them a place to sit.
For those wondering, the migraines have continued. I’m kind of used to them, to be honest–which sucks. They’re about weekly or every other week. Seems to vary. Usually they follow something stressful. So that also gives you a window into how often I feel stressed. I should still see additional doctors about it…but how do you even do that? Patient rosters exist and I don’t even know who I’d call if I wanted to start calling. It’s dumb. Guys like me just end up in the emergency room some day and follow up with doctors after that. Not that I want that to happen, of course…
The migraines themselves aren’t even that big a deal. Yeah, my head ends up hurting and it’s not PLEASANT, but it’s a headache and I can get through that. It’s the visual part that gets me. That part’s difficult. Although now that I know how they behave it’s easier to deal with it. I just wish that part would stop. But the brain scan and blood draw I had and the subsequent eye exam revealed nothing serious…so I think it’s just a thing that’s happening. Although I did notice that the timing of it all correlates with the floaters and flashers in my eyes (which are a normal thing that happens to some of us as we age–yaaaaaay). So maybe that’s all related and when the gel in my eyes finishes separating (yaaaaaaaay) it’ll get better? But I also thought it was tooth-related last year. So, who can say?
The only other thing really going on is work. And I’m getting excited for the Jason Isbell concert next week. My friend Amanda is coming into town for it and we’ve not seen each other in a while. Excited about seeing her too and hanging out. Isbell’s music just might be my “happy place” these days, so I’m looking forward to a great show. The sets and reports back thereof lately have been stellar.
And, I don’t know…I guess that’s it. See why I don’t blog more often these days?
Wanted to write something before going to bed. So let’s do a random post.
I’ve gotten migraines the last two days in a row. That’s rare. I’ve been stressed and tired though, so I think that’s at play. Sick of it though.
A couple weeks ago, someone with whom I’d had a falling out 10 years ago died. (No names.) We never patched things up, and I feel like I was right to walk away in that circumstance.
It was actually something that I wrote here on this blog that drove the wedge–something political, of course. I think there was probably more to it than that… At the time they threatened to tell my employer what I’d written (as though I was worried about someone seeing my publicly viewable blog) and said some very hurtful things on my Facebook wall for anybody who happened by to see, including telling me that I was going to hell, etc… I believe the last words they ever received from me were “Don’t contact me again. Ever.” Being that the trigger for it all was one sentence on my blog with no conversation about it, I just wrote them off as a lunatic and moved on.
So yeah, I feel like I was justified at that time to walk away. But it also sucks that those were the last words between us. They had cancer in the end, and apparently it was a painful fight from what I understand. I wouldn’t have wished that on them. I’m sorry it happened. I don’t think we were meant to patch things up and be friends again, but I hope that person didn’t carry any of that dispute with them in the end. When I’d think of them over the last 10 years, I’d hope that they knew they were wrong to act like that and maybe they’re acting better now. I still hope that part is true. I hope they died a good person with no grudges. I hope that somehow they know I didn’t hold on to mine. That they knew it made me sad when I would think of what happened–we’d been friends before. But I didn’t feel safe reaching out and prompting a new fight. So here we are. So it goes.
You can’t change what happened, but you can change what happens next. I hope they knew peace in their last days and that they know it now. I’m sorry I couldn’t say goodbye.
Well that wasn’t very fun to write. Let’s write something fun.
My brother had a birthday last week and I got him a retro Atari console with a bunch of games loaded on it. He set it up pretty much right away and we sat around playing some of the games we grew up playing and letting his kids play them too. That was a lot of fun. Space Invaders, KABOOM, Pitfall, Frogger, etc… I might need one of those for the house too. I like how far games have come, but those early Atari and NES games had a charm to them that you just don’t get with a high bitrate.
That was better.
I’ve been writing some music. Completing the pedalboard motivated me. Coming up with some interesting stuff, I think. I’ve got one ambient piece that features the Mel 9 pedal and also the Shimmer setting on the Oceans 11 pedal that seemed to come from somewhere outside of myself. It doesn’t have words yet. When I write something I think is pretty sometimes it’s hard to decide what it’s about.
I have been thinking about making a small change to the board though… I mentioned in my post on it and on my podcast that I’m using a Line 6 MM4 modulation unit that might not last much longer, based on prior experiences with their effects. So I’m thinking of putting a different modulation unit there. Strymon makes a cool one called “Mobius” that has everything that I use on the Line 6 plus some cool, weird effects I’d like to play around with. But Strymon stuff is insanely expensive. Maybe if I come into some money or bump into it used. The Line 6 works for now. The Strymon is just a “wish list” item.
I’m playing bass with the Michael Feldman Group at the Boschertown Bar (in Boschertown, I bet) on Saturday the 28th from 8-12 (midnight). Should be a fun one. Hoping I don’t have headaches every day leading up to it. Or during it. Etc. Should be fun. I’ll be singing a few, including Doucette’s “Mama Let Him Play” for the first time. It’ll be something.
I think that’s it. Going to bed now. Very tired.
The Get Up Kids – Kicker (EP) – Enjoyed it a lot. Made me happy.
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – I just put all their albums on “shuffle” and hit “next” when I didn’t want to hear one. This also might have contributed to the migraines.
Recently I undertook a massive, expensive project that ended up moving a lot more quickly (and expensively) than I thought it would. As you’re all aware if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, I’m a musician. I’ve played one instrument or another for about 25 years be it bass or guitar or banjo or whatever. One of my great pleasures is playing around with effect boxes, crafting new (or familiar) sounds and coming up with stuff I like. I’ve built and rebuilt my pedal board countless times over the years.
And I’ve done it again. And this time it’s worth sharing.
So in this post, I’m going to give you a window into my madness and show you how I got to what I believe will be my last board for at least a minute or two. I’ll try to keep it interesting even for those of you who aren’t musicians or effect geeks. But, ladies and gentlemen, this is how I built what I have come to refer to as “Ultra Super Mega Board.” I’ll list the full inventory of the current board at the end of the post. Skip to there if that’s all you want to know. But…
It might be worth stating that my interest in effects dates back to the early 90s when I was jamming around with friends and none of us had the faintest idea what we were doing. I’m not sure who introduced me to the first effect pedal I ever saw, but I have a feeling it was my friend Marc and that it was his old Octave pedal that I seem to recall never quite worked right. Nevertheless, once I learned you could make your guitar (or bass) make weird sounds just by buying an accessory, I was all-in on exploring them. This was made worse when Van Halen released the “Live: Right Here, Right Now” album and Michael Anthony’s “Ultra Bass” solo showed me just how much effect boxes can do.
The first pedal I ever got was a distortion box, because I thought it would be cool to make my bass sound like a guitar. It was a DOD Super American Metal pedal. I don’t have it anymore. A guy whose name I won’t share stole it from me, along with several CDs, videos, and other things. He was a bad friend. I haven’t seen him in close to 20 years, but the last I checked he was on the sex offender registry. In many ways he did me a favor by stealing stuff and killing the friendship. But that’s another story.
After that, I got a Boss Flanger pedal, which I liked a lot and still have to this day, and shortly thereafter a DOD Digital Delay. Then one Christmas, my Dad gifted me a DOD TR3B multi-effect pedal with a Compressor, EQ, and Chorus all on the same box and thus began my obsession with tone contouring and modulation–both things very much present on my board today, although in different boxes. All of the boxes in this paragraph are still in my possession, but they’re all more-or-less retired. They’re on hand for sentimental reasons, or as backups if something else breaks. All were used primarily for bass in my younger years.
I’ve played in a variety of bands and used a massive amount of random effects over the years. I’ve kept most of them. I used to love DOD pedals back when they were all over the place and cheap. I had a bunch of their distortions and choruses and so on. I won’t give the full history or do the full list…but let’s just say over the 15-20 years between the Christmas of the TR3B and now, I’ve bought a lot, learned a lot, and figured out what I like. And somewhere along the way, I started playing guitar and became a songwriter, too. The effect-world is kinder to guitarists than bassists. There’s just-plain more stuff out there if you’ve got six strings.
By the time I was in my band Blue Tattoo, my board had gotten out of hand. At its craziest, it looked like this…
Ultimately, I had way too much on there for Blue Tattoo. We were an Americana act and I’d set up a prog-rock board that was too cumbersome to gig with. I trimmed it down to just a handful of selections on the left board and the two bigger units on the right board, and even then I wasn’t using half of it. I’ve just always liked having stuff around and wired IN CASE I needed it.
Blue Tattoo didn’t go near as far as it should have and fell apart like most bands do. But my obsession with finding a sound I liked kept going. It’s always going. I interact with a lot of guitarists and watch a lot of YouTube rig-rundowns. Premier Guitar does a great series of Rig Rundowns where they talk to famous guitarists/bassists and ask what’s in their rig. I found several effects that way and got into some of the weird and cool stuff made by TC Electronics and Electro-Harmonix thanks to those videos.
I also kept recording solo albums. Blue Tattoo fell apart a little bit after I recorded my “Out from the Light” album (my 3rd) and I released several projects thereafter. By the time I got to the “Trigger Warnings & Sunshine” album (my 8th) I was largely just running direct into mixers and only using an effect or two as needed. But when I started that album, I decided to use a handful of the Blue Tattoo effects and add in a couple I’d used in my subsequent band The Social Gospel, then also throw in a new distortion made by TC Electronics called “Dark Matter” which has become one of my favorites. But even then, I’d trimmed down a lot. Remember the two-board photo from earlier? Now my whole rig fit on just the smaller, right board.
I also decided I needed a smaller amp, which is more or less my “recording” and/or “small rooms” rig at this point. I went to Music Folk in Maplewood and was just kind of poking around. I came upon an amp that’s actually more or less a micro-PA. It’s got a dedicated channel that works great for acoustics and a channel that will work well for electrics or vocals, too. I’d never heard of the brand, but it was a cool set-up and the price was right, so my heavy, bulky Fender Blues Deluxe kind of takes a backseat, waiting for a big room these days. Instead I’m playing through this (and often only HALF of it):
With a new amp, I started re-thinking the board again. I knew I’d have another album coming up and I had some far-reaching plans for how I wanted it to sound. Of course, that would eventually become the “It Could Be Worse” album and some of the ideas I had at that time will also be used moving forward on my next project (which is not really in progress yet). I used a couple of old friends but also bought some new stuff, chiefly an Electro-Harmonix POG and a Boss Digital Delay. The latter of which was bought to supplement an analog delay that I didn’t want to be my main delay unit.
I’d been using a Line 6 Digital Delay multi-effect unit (the DL4) up until then. I liked it a lot because it had a TON of different delays and stuff in it. In several bands I used it as a quick-delay, a David Gilmour-esque delay, and an always-on slap-back just for a little presence. It was the main box in my arsenal…but like most Line 6 products of that build it started developing a problem where some of the triggers wouldn’t push down easily and Line 6 stuff is in NO WAY user-serviceable. So it came off the board. At one point I had three different Line 6 units of similar build (the delay, a modulation box, and an amp modeler). Now I’m down to only one left, the big, blue, MM4 unit that’s present in most of these photos. I’m disappointed that Line 6 made such a simple repair impossible to make at home. Kinda killed my desire to use them–and I’ve noticed they’ve largely stopped making those units, so I bet I’m not alone. The one I’m still using is only there because it still works and it’s convenient to not have to replace it. But I imagine it doesn’t have too long left. Oh well. It’s more fun collecting the little boxes anyway. Plus when one of the little ones goes, you only have to replace one thing. When a Line 6 box goes, I have to replace FOUR.
But I digress… When I started work on the “It Could Be Worse” album, the board looked as follows and it stayed that way up until about a month ago. Since I took a year to work on that album, that means this set-up was the only one I used for a full year, which is kind of a record for me…
And that brings us up to the last two months. I have a sort of habit of buying myself something cool every time I complete an album. It’s part “job well done” and part inspiration to work on the next one. Usually it’s a guitar. This time I decided I wanted to buy myself a new board.
In watching a series of YouTube videos I’d come across the concept of signal-buffers. They serve a dual purpose and I’ll start with the easier of the two… Every guitarist has to think about how to position things on their pedal board for “ease of reach” purposes. Especially if you’re also a singer, you need your most used effects that you’re going to need to turn on and off mid-song the most frequently as accessible as possible. In brief, for me that means I need my distortions and delays at the FRONT of the board, in order to reduce risk of losing my balance or just flat out missing hitting the right box at the right time and messing up the flow of my playing. The thing that first attracted me to signal buffers is that they’re big, long units that sit at the front of your board and you can hook your effect boxes into it and control any pedal that’s set anywhere on the board from the switches on the front. It was a lifesaving concept…but it comes with an added benefit as well.
Signal buffering is hard to explain. In brief, it cleans up your sound a lot by removing the pedals that aren’t in use from the signal chain when you’ve turned off the switch for that pedal. The more boxes you put between your guitar and your amp, the more your signal is degraded by small amounts. It may not even be noticeable, but it’s happening. And if you’re a guy like me who likes a lot of effects, it’s a big difference, even if you don’t actually know it’s happening. Signal buffering puts each box plugged into the master unit into its own “loop” effectively removing the degradation of the signal for each effect you turn off. Confused? Me too.
Long story short…many amps have an “effects loop” that addresses this problem up to a point. A signal buffer box is basically multiple effects loops in one box. I bought one. It has ten loops. That means my signal now has up to 10 less boxes between the guitar and the amp. It’s a MUCH cleaner sound. I almost didn’t believe it when I heard it. There are lots of those boxes out there…but I recommend Loop Master. Even if you have them build something custom and they don’t have something in-stock, it’ll be worth the wait and it’s the least cost you’re going to find on the market. I thought what I was buying was going to take 3 months to complete…but it turned out to be in-stock and I had it within 2 weeks. Which SEVERELY expedited how quick I had to do everything else!
The trickiest part of a signal buffer is that it’s a BIG piece of equipment. My board that you’ve seen above was never larger than 24″ wide. The Loop Master unit I bought is 26″. I needed a bigger board. I shopped around and the board that’s currently the most used in the industry is the Pedal Train. I was initially trying to avoid them and find something a little cheaper, but I kept coming back to their design…so I sprung for the Novo 32 board. It’s a full 32″ wide. Enormous. This is the box it came in…
That photo, of course, is slightly misleading. That’s way bigger than 32″. But it was so absurd, I wanted to share it. The board itself is just plain aluminum rails with space to allow for wiring and so on. It doesn’t even come with the Velcro on it (although they do provide it). You have to stick everything down yourself. I purposely chose something that allowed me to start absolutely from scratch.
The most important part was choosing the stuff that was going to go on it. I had some old stuff I wanted to include (including some stuff I hadn’t used in a long time) and also knew I’d be buying a couple of new pieces I’d been wanting to add. I knew it’d look crazy in the end. That was my goal, in fact. But I wanted it to be FUNCTIONALLY crazy. I wanted it to be a board so versatile it would fit any project I walked into, no matter what instrument I was playing. A board for guitar and bass alike. And even acoustic. So I selected a wide array of effects. Here’s the pile I chose.
Alongside the tried and true effects I added two that I’d been wanting for a while. The first is an overdrive pedal (more or less a distortion for the laymen–but for the non-laymen, I’m sorry I called it a distortion). It’s made by the TC Electronics people, who have fast become one of my favorite companies out there, especially for distortions and similar effects. I first ran across it on the board of Paul Gilbert from Mr. Big (and others). Paul is one of those “next level” guitarists. He did a video demoing the TC MojoMojo pedal and by the time it was half over, I was clicking over to Musician’s Friend to price them. They’re stunningly cheap, so I knew I’d be picking one up eventually. That was about two years ago…for some reason I didn’t pick it up until after the new board arrived. I’m using it in a “cleaner” setting than Gilbert does, but I like it a lot. It’s a nice warm overdrive and I think it’s going to be a mainstay…like my Blues Driver, but warmer.
I also picked up a pedal that just came out this year. In fact, I had to wait for it to be in stock at the start of this month before I could take it home! But the Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 is easily my favorite pedal I’ve bought in 10 years. It’s a reverb pedal. Strangely I’ve never had a reverb pedal and I knew I wanted to put one on Ultra Super Mega Board for those times I’ll be running into an amp that doesn’t have reverb built in. What sold me on the Oceans 11 wasn’t so much the fact that it’s got 11 preset reverbs built in…it was the one called “Shimmer.” It’s a hauntingly beautiful reverb mixed with a synth effect that you’ve got to hear to believe. (Check out my podcast next week for that.)
Once I had all of the pedals I thought I wanted, I needed to figure out how to power the thing. My previous board had built in power–it’s one of the things that attracted me to that board. Unfortunately, the power on it was a little unstable. Some of the power cables would glitch every now and again and send a static sound through the amp. Apart from that probably being a fire hazard, it was also annoying. For the last several years that I’d been running that board, I was powering stuff using a “1 Spot” power supply, which was essentially a single adapter that powered nine pedals. But that wasn’t ideal. That system tends to create a lot of what is called “proximity noise.” Essentially all of the transformers are powered by the same source, and that results in some hum. What I needed was ISOLATED power. So I started looking at the bricks made by Voodoo Labs and similar companies… And in that process I found out that Truetone makes what I was looking for. They made the “1 Spot” unit I’d been using previously, but had since expanded to make isolated supplies. So I bought A 1 Spot Pro and installed it. Then basic math told me I needed more spaces…so I bought a second one.
As you might imagine a board that takes up that much real-estate and power also needs a crapload of wires. While the Loop Master provides the convenience of putting all the controls right at the front of the board, it also results in the inconvenience of having to buy about four times as many cables as you had before, since every pedal going into it is now isolated. So…this happened…
They don’t tell you when you start playing guitar that you’re also going to have to become an amateur electrician. Wiring everything and worrying about milliamps and DC power vs AC and all of that is something I only started worrying about when I started building this board. I’ve learned a lot over the past two months…but that’s all useless now, because I plugged it all in, it worked…and it looked like this:
I noodled around for a couple hours, setting volumes and changing tones. The signal buffering means my tone has not only clarified but also CHANGED. I needed to tweak and dial in a new, cleaner tone. I’ve always used compression to even out my playing a little, so that’s present…but I’ve also put an EQ at the start of the chain and a pedal called the “Sonic Stomp” that adds some clarifying processing and low-end boost. In brief…my clean tone is clear and crisp without losing the low-end…I’m finally happy with it. I never thought I’d say that!
Of course, after all the planning and work, once I started playing through the board, I almost immediately realized there was something I wanted to change. Which of course meant unplugging everything. Which was an hour’s work. The silver pedal that is second from the right on the bottom row in the above photo is an acoustic pedal. I thought it would be good to have in there for plugging in my acoustic, but I had forgotten that it has some signal hum that I can’t get rid of easily. It just wasn’t a fit and needed to come off. I don’t use much on my acoustic tone anyway, so it was no big loss. Unfortunately, it was in slot “1” in the Loop Master, which meant everything else was out of order if I put something else in.
But that also allowed me to do something differently that was a blessing in disguise. You have to put a lot of thought into the order of your pedals. Some pedals feed into others in specific orders to be used in certain ways. A Delay pedal is essentially an echo. One of my favorite effects is to put a Flanger after a Delay so that the echoes trigger the wave of the Flanger…essentially I let the one pedal play the other. But I also like my chorus at the FRONT of my chain before my distortion. The Line 6 MM4 box I use was chiefly used for chorus but also has a Flanger and similar effects in it that I’d prefer to have at the other end of the chain…but I was keeping it at the front and mainly just using the chorus. Taking out the acoustic box would allow me to throw in a single chorus pedal and move the other stuff to the other side and use it the way I’d been wanting to.
The problem there was that I didn’t have a working standalone chorus pedal. I’d been using an old DOD Ice Box until this year, but it started emitting an overwhelming hum any time I turned it on, making it unusable. So…yesterday I went to Guitar Center and bought what should be the LAST thing I’m buying for a long time and threw an MXR Analog Chorus on the board. (I like MXR pedals a lot.)
So…after completing it, then re-completing it…this is the FINAL version of Ultra Super Mega Board.
For those who really only want to know what’s on there and why, here’s the chain.
Guitar Signal – I then run into some basic tone pedals before it gets into the signal buffer.
TC Electronic Polytune – It’s just a tuner.
MXR Dyna Comp – Compressor pedal. I always like a little bit of compression on my electric tone to even out the dynamic between the chords and the leads.
Danelectro – Fish & Chips – EQ pedal. I rarely used it before, but now use it to dial in the crispness on the treble side.
BBE Sonic Stomp – Or if you zoom in you’ll see I’ve put some tape over it and renamed it “Sonic Screwdriver.” I use it to round out my low end and warm up the overall tone.
Loop Master Signal Buffer
MXR Analog Chorus – I don’t overdue it with chorus. Just a little sparkle.
Electro-Harmonix Nano POG – Essentially an octave pedal to make single notes and chords tastefully huge.
Boss Blues Driver – I use it as a slightly crunchy clean overdrive–just a little bit of break.
Foremost, sorry about not blogging for a while. I’ve been busy and lazy at the same time.
I’m sick. I kinda felt it coming on as far back as Tuesday. I’d been tired and jittery all at once and that’s never good. I went to bed super early that night, got ten hours of sleep, and woke up tired. Went to bed earlyish on Wednesday too. And woke up early on Thursday aching all over, just knowing nothing good could come from eating anything. So I called in and went back to bed.
I slept for a while and then called my dad to ask if he thought I was having a heart attack because my back and shoulder hurt and I didn’t have any appetite. Went over to his place for a while and he kinda talked me down. He called an Urgent Care for me and was ready to take me there and get an EKG done if I felt like I needed it. But talking about it out loud, it started to feel silly, and ultimately I’m the only one who can decide if I’m going to a doctor or not…and I decided that since the Ibuprofen is helping and I’m not falling over or anything…maybe I’ll save the deductible for my first REAL heart attack.
Then it rained. POURED. There were tornado sirens and the power was blinking in and out. Out of nowhere, it was nighttime outside at like 5:30. One of THOSE storms we’re lucky enough to get here from time to time. The kind where my cable and Internet have been blinking out ever since. Since I was there already and not stupid enough to try to drive home, I spent the storm hanging out in Dad’s basement. Going up and down the stairs without getting winded convinced me that my heart is working and my back just hurts because of course it does.
After the sky had cleared a bit, I went to the grocery store to get some soup. And they were on generator power, so that was pretty much the only kind of thing they were selling. The power had been out there for an hour and a half. It was one heck of a storm. There was a stoplight completely blacked out right in front of the place, too, and I could see the block of shops across the street was also without power. The grocery store had a bare minimum of lights and was still selling anything that wasn’t refrigerated or frozen, but they were going to have to trash all their cold food by that time. Rough afternoon for everybody, I guess.
I bought and ate the soup and it went fine. I still didn’t really WANT it, I just thought I *should* eat. It’s weird for me to not feel hungry. I spend most of my day thinking about what I’m going to eat next…so being at “I guess I should cram SOMETHING down” levels is pretty unwell for me. But I forced down the chicken noodle soup and all went well.
I got up today and still felt very uneasy so I stayed home again. I’ve got a very understanding work-group, staffed with great people. They lost power today, presumably somehow because of last night’s storm, I guess. So I guess I didn’t miss a lot by staying home. I talked to one of my team-mates by phone a couple of times throughout the day as much as I could to help with some questions and whatnot. They’re helping me out, so I tried to help them too.
I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich around 12:30 (noon), again not out of hunger but because I figured I should. And a few hours later I discovered that my stomach didn’t appreciate the PB&J in the same way it did the soup. Remind me to shop for pants, by the way. It’s been a while since I’ve done that…
I had some toast about three hours ago and so far have been sitting comfortably on the couch ever since. I’m kinda hoping I just bought spoiled jelly.
Of course, I’m writing all of this in case it does turn out that my heart is failing so there will be some record of how I died and my stupidity in overlooking it. Or this can also stand as a warning: If it was the jelly, someone should throw it out instead of making another sandwich.