Towering Inferno: Recording Kaddish

Interview | Band

Published in SOS January 1996
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

Over three years, Towering Inferno (led by core duo Andy Saunders and Richard Wolfson) engaged the services of over 50 performers to produce their self-financed opus Kaddish -- described by Brian Eno as "the most frightening record I have ever heard!" PETER JONES charts the development of this ambitious project.

 

Towering Inferno's album Kaddish, which was released by Island Records in August 1995, is an emotional epic spanning 75 minutes and evoking the darkest hours of the Holocaust, as well as the tranquil beauty of European folk music and Jewish prayer. Featuring the voices of acclaimed Hungarian folk singer Márta Sebestyén (who also appears on the new Deep Forest album) and Hungarian performance poet Endre Szkárosi in a 'punk/folk/metal/Jewish/classical opera', it tackles the thorny subjects of repression and survival, both past and present. Leading Towering Inferno members Andy Saunders and Richard Wolfson share a European Jewish background (Russian/Lithuanian and Russian/German respectively), which, they feel, gives them the right to open up this subject to popular culture. As part of this personal reaction to the erasure of much of Europe's cultural heritage, Saunders and Wolfson have married images to their 'sound sculpture' in a massive multimedia event which has already packed the Queen Elizabeth Hall and then returned to London in October 1995 following a European tour.

During its development, the Kaddish project received the support of none other than Brian Eno, who championed the album, and recommended it to a number of record companies himself. Since then, this support has brought him to Saunders' and Wolfson's live show and led him to appear on their promotional video. His comments are as positive as ever:

"My feeling is that a piece of work should seduce you immediately, or should beat you over the head, which this one does. It's very immediate, there's no doubt it's affecting you when you're listening to it."

The album not only satisfies on a musical level, but comes through with a sound of its own, thanks to the production values applied by Andy and Richard, and the manipulations of Swiss engineer Gregg Skerman. Gregg has been the band's live sound man for some years and was their first choice for recording the album. His skill with acoustic instruments came to the fore as they progressed, and although much edited, the album's sounds are largely acoustic.

IN THE BEGINNING

Record deals were still a long way off when Towering Inferno formed in 1986 as an "ambient, techno and heavy metal" combination. Recording for what became the Kaddish project commenced in 1991, but the band had no idea at that point that such a long and interesting journey lay ahead of them: "We went in to do a 12-hour drum session to begin with", explains Richard, "but we just kept on having more and more ideas".

The session, at the Diorama in London's West End, was the first of many and had a great influence on the album, as Richard confirms: "We knew we had to get a mythic, religious sound and we knew from playing there that the Diorama has a five or six second reverb. We made the decision that the only way we were going to get the sound we wanted was to record all the drums and acoustic instruments at the centre of the dome". This was no easy task, as the modest studio lies at the other end of the building to the main hall and nobody had realised the potential of linking the two. The team spent weeks planning the assault and hired a 40-metre multicore and a number of microphones for the job.

To add to the difficulties, the hall's location meant that there was a traffic noise problem, and this forced them to adopt a night-only recording policy. This persistence and ingenuity paid off and rewarded them with a sound which, as Andy enthuses, "the best digital reverb in the world couldn't reproduce". This was captured by a number of Neumann KM84s, suspended in pairs at varying distances from the sources. Each sound/part was recorded on up to 12 tracks, providing distant, mid-field and close proximity effects for later treatment and submixing. The drums in particular benefited from this almost classical approach. Some drum sounds were sourced from drum machine samples, but even these were exposed to the Diorama treatment, fed through large monitors in the dome and recorded in the same way.

Later in the process of making the album, Richard and Andy were to arrange further sessions, including more drums and percussion with Steve Kellner, Gaspar Lawal, John Marshall and Chris Cutler, saxes with Elton Dean, the five-piece Electra Strings and the 100-strong London Welsh Chorale. This particular exercise was one of the most taxing recording events of the album and involved only their conductor Kenneth Bowen having the luxury of headphones. Using a simple keyboard tuning cue and exhaustive part rehearsal, the choral sections on the record were done with the assembled voices singing in time with the conductor. Subsequently sampled and organised, this aspect of the recording, although nerve-wracking, worked very well and was used to great effect on the sublime 'Sto Mondo Rotondo' among other pieces. At 'pre-mix' sessions, whole tracks were fed through high-quality stereo equipment to record the resultant 'reverb', ready for mixing in to complete the sound picture.

As with many a protracted project, as Andy explains, technology moves on: "When we started, there was no affordable stereo sampling, no Akai S1000. We eventually got one and it became an integral part of the writing process". Richard continues: "We did a lot of creative things rather than sampling other people's loops. We actually did finished mixes of pieces, became dissatisfied with them, and then sampled whole sections of them with all the sounds and production ideas, to use as building blocks for whole new pieces". In addition to these 'songs within songs', they trawled their own past and used clippings from five years of live performance to add to the collage of sound that was to become Kaddish.

Since completing the album, Richard and Andy have added a Kurzweil K2000R to their collection, an instrument which Andy likes for its "richer and truer sound, and timestretch at the turn of a knob".

PRODUCTION

'Fuzz Rabbi' is not something often seen written on a mixing desk scribble strip, but in producing Kaddish, the Towering Inferno team constantly pushed themselves to the limit, testing subliminal effects and experimenting to enhance the all-important atmosphere of the tracks. Countless fuzz boxes were tried on different instruments and made their presence felt, not only on the prayers of Rabbi Tamas Raj (see the 'Adventures in Budapest' box), but also on Endre Szkárosi's poetry (where a Fuzzface provided the distortion) and, of course, the distorted guitars. After exhaustive efforts to use 'classic' guitars and amps to produce the desired effect, the basic RAT distortion pedal was paired off with the unlikely Ibanez Roadstar guitar, feeding through an ancient Roland 301 Space Echo. The output of this is the sound you can hear on the metallic 'Reverse Field'. Richard was as surprised by this setup as anyone, "but we liked it so much, we've actually bought another Ibanez and another Roland Echo."

Reverbs on the mix were another area for experimentation, and every effort was made not to compromise the spatial effect of the Diorama. This called into question the standard arrangement of Yamaha NS10s on the desk, and after some abortive mixes, B&W DM40 speakers and a Studer amp were brought in. Andy was frustrated by the lack of clarity from the Yamahas: "We couldn't hear the reverbs properly, and it became obvious we needed a more truthful representation of the sound".

A Lexicon 480 was used, mainly with small room settings, to give life and size to otherwise dry sounds, sometimes being substituted or added to with a PCM70. A notable difference in the approach to reverb was the avoidance of standard stereo pairings, and a lot of time was spent balancing sounds in the stereo picture, with reverb on one side and a dry signal on the other, to get 'wide-screen' effects. Simple, basic delays were the only other effects used, Yamaha SPX90s adding background bounce to rhythm parts, without actually being heard.

MIXING & MASTERING

The recording studios used included the Diorama, Camden Lock and Porcupine in London, and of course 3M in Budapest, but the bulk of the mixing was done with Gregg Skerman at Lavender Hill Studios. Mastering was done onto the studio's Panasonic DAT machines and edited with a Sonic Solutions system at a later stage, where many of the crossfade effects were created.

This chapter of the album was to be as detailed as all the others, and took 10 weeks to complete, with Dave Bernez at the Townhouse Post Production suite spending many evenings adding the finishing touches; level matching, developing the running order and applying minimal amounts of EQ. As the album was mixed to DAT, the mastering process remained in the digital domain, starting with a transfer to the Mac-based Sonic Solutions hard disk system. Some clever overlays were added to some of the tracks as the creative process overflowed into the final editing stages; programming and crossfades were completed and a trial running order set up, before DAT listening copies were made for final checking. After everyone had listened at home, minor adjustments were made and more listening followed. EQ was gradually introduced where necessary, using a Sony SDP1000, and some judicious compression added using a Sony DAL1000. Early in 1994, the final Sony 1630 CD master was made.

EUROPEAN CONNECTION

Having completed this huge and ambitious project, Andy and Richard needed an outlet. At this point, ReR, the Anglo-European label responsible for the release of bands such as Faust and Cassiber, stepped forward with an offer of a release on their TI Records label. It then took the band four months to figure out how to perform the work live; it was decided in the end to do half the mixing live on stage, with samples laid out on keyboards and live DAT material being flown in manually, with very few sequences running. Eight musicians were enlisted to play the work live and at the world premiere performance at the Belluard Bollwerk International Festival in Fribourg, Switzerland, in July 1994, the audience were visibly moved. The 1995 schedule included four dates in Vienna and shows in Moscow, Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest, Spain, Germany and London. The ICA in London was the venue for a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast of the performance on 1st October 1995, and the USA is set to experience the Towering Inferno early in 1996.

Since their involvement with Brian Eno and their profile-raising concert last February, the band have struck a deal with Island Records which should support their future work. More patronage has come from the traditionally conservative BBC, who have commissioned a soundtrack for a radio play, and have followed this by more offers of work. A new album is already in the planning stages, and aims to be "an exploration incorporating Film Noir and dance music."

 

HAPPY ACCIDENTS

Saunders and Wolfson used an Atari 1040ST running Cubase to organise the long samples of playing and singing stored in their Akai S1000 -- 15 hours in all. Any sequenced playing was left unquantised, with the accent on the musicality of the performers to provide the feel. The setup, stretched to its limit with samples and information, was not infallible, but some happy accidents did occur, as Richard explains, in some cases inspiring composition.

"The opening of 'The Rose' at the beginning of the album is based on a simple repeating pattern recorded in free time on a Korg M1; it's about 10 seconds long. One day, that programme picked up a flute sample and played something entirely different. We weren't sure how, but it ended up as the flute section of 'Not Me'. Later on in the process we had the same programme playing saxes and they were all different, so we worked out a way of crossfading them all. Because of this, each section of 'Not Me' has a different sound, but unconsciously they all fit together. Someone described this as aural morphing, which is something I haven't heard of before".

 

ADVENTURES IN BUDAPEST

Saunders and Wolfson both drove to Hungary to meet up with Endre Szkárosi and Márta Sebestyén and record the Hungarian contributions to the album. After a search, the group found themselves at 3M Studios in Budapest, the place where Márta's acclaimed group, Musikas, generally record. The studio was unusual, equipped with an Eastern desk neither Richard or Andy recognised and a Fostex half-inch 16-track, but the sessions went well and they returned with a wealth of brilliantly performed material. This included an unusual addition from Chief Rabbi Tamas Raj, whom they visited to interview. After their explanation of the project, he offered to recite the Jewish prayer of mourning, Kaddish, which Andy captured on their handy Casio DA3 DAT machine. Andy: "What's more, it was spoken in the rare and beautiful Transylvanian dialect, and he graciously gave his permission for it to be used on the album".

 

FROM STEVE REICH TO MEGADETH: INFLUENCES

Inevitably, comparisons have been made between Kaddish and existing musical styles, but even these have been on the flattering side and include Gorecki's 3rd Symphony, Steve Reich, even Megadeth, on the menacing 'Reverse Field'. The band themselves cite their own influences as including John Cage, Faust, This Heat, Erik Satie, even My Bloody Valentine. As far as Andy is concerned "the last great breakthrough in music was Brian Eno's Ambient Series, in the sense that it brought something completely marginalised (background music for supermarkets) into the foreground".

"I love the way you can never quite work out where the sound is coming from", says Richard, "and things loom at you out of the mist. In Brian Eno's work, there are always subliminal sounds -- a backdrop of noise".

Similar noise can be found on Kaddish: "It sounds like tape hiss, but it's actually rain in Budapest", explains Richard. "During the recital of poetry by Endre [Szkárosi] over the choir on 'Sto Mondo Rotondo', a thunderstorm broke outside, so we threw the studio doors open and recorded it live."

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