Friday, August 6, 2004

Tourography: Sonogasm live at Cooperstown 2004-08-06

I'll confine my commentary to after the tourography entry and media, because this was Sonogasm's best show and it is worth appreciating on its own, without any context as distraction.  We were the second of three bands scheduled for the evening's entertainment following the "Pulse of Phoenix Arts Festival" and an Arizona Diamondbacks win over the Atlanta Braves by a score of four to two.


YouTube Link: Entire Show!
^The above link includes a "Track 0" of Ekosphere performing Evanescence's "Everybody's Fool" and a video of pre-show footage tacked on after our closer of "Working Man."


Band: Sonogasm
Date: 2004-08-06
Venue: Alice Cooperstown Restaurant
Location: Phoenix, AZ

Vocals, Bass: Mike Bahr
Guitars: Jeff Mink
Drums: Chuck Prime

Other act(s): Ekosphere, Feral

Setlist:
1. Shinespark

2. Blue Instant
3. Schism (Tool)
4. Luna
5. The Truth Will Set Me Free
6. After You Fell Asleep
7. The Safety Dance (Grim & Necro version) (Men Without Hats)
8. Winter Moon
9. 21 Months
10. Working Man (Rush)


At the time, this was the largest crowd for which I had ever performed.  To put it simply, the crowd was awesome, the other bands were awesome, the sound was awesome, the venue took great care of us and was awesome, and everything was just... awesome.


The Super Friendz, Aaron, Mike, and Scott, had ditched Niki Kwik after her Ziggy's debacle in June and found a new frontwoman, Jenn Kujawski.  The band renamed themselves Ekosphere and played an abbreviated set with two covers, an agonizing Letters to Cleo song and Evanescence's "Everybody's Fool."  As it happened, I was there with camera in hand, and I documented that performance as well as Sonogasm's own show.  (See link to entire show above.)


Can you believe this was Jenn's first ever performance?  We were impressed.  Feral played after us, and though they were a bit more of a thrash thing, they were tight and competent and we sure can't find fault with that.


Our performance?  Despite some equipment issues, I'll take it as a finale and be thankful.  Shinespark shone.  Blue Instant was an instant classic.  Schism was furious.  Luna, played up-tempo, was the best we had ever played it.  Truth was crisp.  Asleep was okay, despite having aged poorly.  The Necro Dance was great fun.  Winter Moon came off brilliantly.  We nailed 21 months.  And finally, Working Man brought the house down and earned us a huge crowd response.  We rode off into the sunset on that high note.


So why break up Sonogasm if things were so great?


In short, all our failures to execute and get along finally came to a head.


The problem with Sonogasm was that it was a unanimocracy.  That meant we didn't do anything unless we all agreed to it.  And that, in turn, meant that no single creative vision could push the band to be great, but any one of us could hold the band back by our personal or professional flaws.


Compositionally, I lacked focus.  We started the band intending a classic metal sound with touches of prog, and our initial slate of songs was nicely aligned that way: Blue Instant, Truth, Luna, Winter Moon, and the experimental Unbinding.  I then wrote modern metal (Threads), alt-grunge (After You Fell Asleep), and mosh rock (Crystal).  The closest I ever returned to our focus was Shinespark, modern metal with a touch of prog.  And it was about to get worse -- I was writing alt-rock and southern rock (Aurora and other unfinished pieces).  No focus, no unified direction, no cohesion.


To make matters worse, Jeff and Chuck stopped writing music.  Chuck's first piece, Smoking Gun, never made it out of the practice room.  His second, Truth, was decent enough as a metal tune and had some authentic riffs.  Unfortunately, it was nearly unsingable -- vocal composition was not Chuck's strength.  Jeff wrote two songs, Luna and I Love You for Your Dirty Mind.  The latter seemed fun, but Jeff wasn't happy with it and he scrapped it.  Luna was technically superior, and in fact proggier than anything else we ever did, but it was so damned depressing I wanted to open a vein whenever I played it.  I'm sorry, Jeff -- your song is good, but I'm just not emo enough to embrace it.


Let it not be said that I was unwilling to savage my own work when it was deserved.  From among only the songs we actually performed live, I wrote:


  • Blue Instant -- Good, but could have used more structural development.  I can't come down too hard on this one because it became a crowd favorite, so obviously I did something right.
  • Winter Moon -- Too heavily derivative of the Maridia theme, poor chord progressions.  Unsingable lyrics in places.  Horrible key transitions.
  • Unbinding -- Too inchoate.  Scrapped, with some parts used years later in The Oblivion Path.
  • Threads -- Too derivative.  Stupid lyrics.  Ridiculous overall.
  • After You Fell Asleep -- Structure was finally getting somewhere, but insipid, whiny lyrics.  Good theme, but poor execution.  People who dug the song got tired of it, and it aged poorly.
  • Crystal -- Just terrible overall, never really coalesced, stupid theme, stupid lyrics, unsingable lyrics, banal melodies, tempo issues.
  • Shinespark -- This one I am happy with, and even still I'd like to develop a counterpoint theme and restructure the song to take advantage of the depth.


Did I miss any?  Oh, but that's not all.


My vocals were just not very good.  In 2010, when I was working with Aaron and Johan on Premium Blend, Johan said my vocals sounded good, better than before, but still had plenty of room for improvement.  This was after six years of pretty regular singing on my part since he had last heard me perform as part of Sonogasm.  So, essentially, Sonogasm featured my vocals roughly six years before they became good.  I had years of experience on the bass, and could play close to perfectly when not singing, but when I sang, my basslines got sloppy.  So there was a real skill issue there.


I won't criticize my bandmates too much here because they know their flaws well enough and this isn't a bashing session.  Suffice it to say from my own perspective that Jeff was talented but woefully undisciplined, while Chuck was experienced but struggled with timing.


There were personality clashes on top of that.  Chuck and Jeff didn't get along that well, and playing the peacemaker was starting to wear on my last nerve.  The epilogue to that is that even though I have known Jeff since kindergarten and only met Chuck as we began Sonogasm, Jeff and I ended up parting ways to some extent, while I am still in touch with Chuck.  Ah, unpredictable life.


There were other problems, but they just piled on.  We had no truck or van, just three cars, so bringing our gear to shows was always troublesome.  I lacked quality instruments and equipment, though Chuck and Jeff did okay in that regard.  Chuck was dealing with intermittent employment, while I was staring the approach of law school right in the face.  In the end, something had to give.  And that something was our band.


Wow!  If you made it reading this far into my narcissistic postmortem of the Sonogasm project, I am genuinely impressed.  I hope that this recounting of my experiences helps you in your own projects, whether musical or otherwise.

2 comments:

  1. Wutchoo talkin bout, Willis? I always liked Jeff and got along with him just fine. So far as I know it was mutual. My problems with him were musical, not personal. If he had problems with me, I never caught on to them.

    In playing, we were 3 guys overcoming issues. In writing, we were 3 guys running in 4 or 5 directions. In instrumentation, we were 3 guys who needed a 4th. No vision COULD have pushed that combination to greatness. Sono burned its fuel, ran its course and was done. "Unamimocracy" is what let us get as far as we did without any of us being too unhappy doing it.

    Haven't you decided to be a frontman already? Sheez! I keep telling you, string-skills are more common than good voices, because skills are made by many, while voices are born to a few.

    You could always sing well when not playing. Playing compromises a singer, especially with musically intense stuff like we did. And you didn't spend years practicing it; you jumped into the deep end right away. I can think of several good singers who are chained to an instrument, but not a single great one. The greats won't tolerate the compromise. And if playing compromises them, it will compromise anyone.

    And imagine the freedom you'd have in your writing if you didn't have to compromise the parts. These days I think the biggest killer of music careers is compromise and settling.

    You raise a good point about vocal conmposition. As an isolated subject, I never gave it much thought (which is probably obvious, huh). I know my Truth vocal lines were mediocre from inception, which is a big reason I never threw it in with my post-Sono stuff. But is the newer stuff really any better? Is a good vocal line the one that's fun to sing along with in the car? I'd bet it is.

    Ah, so many questions. Maybe for a time and place other than this.

    Anyway, all in all I'm glad I did Sono. I posted Unbinding (Mason Jar) and Truth (Chasers) on my Facebook, along with some 80s stuff which I wish could be more varied.

    Throwing you the horns \m/,

    PR1ME

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  2. Yo Chuckles!

    Well, those are certainly fair observations considering you were there firsthand as well! :)

    As you observe, though, a lot of what we could talk about (and have talked about) isn't for this forum. Not that Sonogasm had too many deep, dark secrets (except for those dead hookers that time), but there are aspects of the experience that don't really lend well to journal/blog-style reminiscing.

    Compromise and settling are pretty good ways of summing up what doomed us. There was simply too much we weren't doing right or didn't know to do right, and too many opposing polarities tugging the band one way and then back the other way. We were like an octopus with roller skates: lots of energy and movement, but not really getting anywhere.

    I'm not sure my natural voice is quite as good as you credit it, but it's true that I sound better while not playing an instrument. Down the road, when there is time to do a band thing again, I'll probably install myself in the singer role first and foremost, and only move to an instrument if we have the unlikely good fortune to find a better singer outright.

    Truth, musically, was solid. It offered what it promised. In terms of grokkable metal riffs, it had the best out of any of our material. The vocal lines were rough, though. Vocal composition is a different skill set and even now I continue to struggle with it. Whether a vocal melody/line sticks with you and makes you want to sing along is a pretty effective quick-and-dirty indicator. When I discover someone who can compose such things, like Neal Morse (Spock's Beard), I really try to get under the hood now and figure out what makes that work. This is something even Dream Theater, for example, is NOT doing especially well at these days, and hasn't since Kevin Moore left.

    At some point I'll put video on these blog posts... just been wrapped up in other projects as of late. They're all nicely H.264 encoded now, super quality at reasonable file sizes. Just gotta sit down and separate out the highlights and put them on my Michael Bahr Projects channel on YouTube and embed the links. I'm hoping this blog can become a really rich repository of fun project material, past and future. Hopefully my readers can have a good laugh. :)

    Horns right back at ya man! \m/

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