Peter Gabriel - Passion
Mark J. Prendergast explores the recording process that surrounded Peter Gabriel's new album 'Passion' and takes a peep inside Gabriel's Real World studio complex.
Peter Gabriel could be viewed as 'the man for all seasons' of contemporary rock and pop. Some would say his stint with Genesis from the late Sixties to the mid-Seventies was that band's finest hour, others would nail him to the wall for bringing such bloated, self-opinionated, progressive rock to our ears. As a musician more interested in composition, both lyrical and technical, Gabriel found his true voice via a series of five solo albums from 1977 up until 1986's hugely successful So, where in Daniel Lanois, Gabriel seemed to find the producer who shared his textured vision most.
Beyond that it was the death of Steve Biko in September 1977 and his new awareness of African rhythms that led Gabriel to compose 'Biko', possibly the most important human rights song of the Eighties and an enormous influence on every successive 'cause' rock and pop recording to date. WOMAD came in 1982 - its ambitious aims to unify world music at Shepton Mallet succeeded artistically but financially left Gabriel with enormous debt. In stepped his old school pals Genesis, who saved the day with a fund-raising reunion concert in October 1982 at the Milton Keynes Bowl. With royalties from 'Biko' being used to fund black peoples' rights, Gabriel became more and more absorbed in such projects as Amnesty International's 'Conspiracy Of Hope' tour in 1986, with The Police and U2, for Central and South American political prisoners, as well as the more recent 'Human Rights Now' world tour (1988) with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N'Dour.
The latter, a Senegalese star, brought Gabriel to West Africa during a time of violent political upheaval to make a video for the song 'Shakin' The Tree' earlier this summer. It's not surprising that Gabriel then spent one month, with the help of Hugh Padgham and George Acogny, mixing it to perfection at his new Real World studio complex in Box, some miles east of Bath.
Built inside a 200 year-old mill, this state-of-the-art studio has to be England's finest, with Gabriel journeying to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California's Silicon Valley to get the very best equipment customised. The main studio, whose glass house surrounding windows provide a marvellous countryesque view of the mill pond, houses a huge Solid State Logic SL4000G automated mixing console linked to several Otari multitrack tape machines. There are Studer mastering decks while Quad, ATC and Boxer provide amp/speaker support. The hi-tech end swoops up with the location of a sophisticated WaveFrame digital audio workstation plus a Fairlight III on the premises. For keyboards, there are the standard Rolands plus an Emu Systems Emulator III sampler. With his passion for rhythm and drum machines, such devices as the Roger Linn designed MPC60 drum box from Akai are par for the course. There is a welter of effects units by Quantec, Roland, Yamaha, Lexicon et al, and the usual Sony DAT for pre-mixes. It goes without saying that compressors, noise gates and EQ units are the best around.
But Gabriel is not that interested in technology. After the above list this may sound like a joke, but it's not. The studio, with its three levels, is designed as an atmospheric work location. Wood and ceramic feature heavily; metal (for its positive ion production, a no-no for clear thinking) has been scrapped, at great cost, for the former. Glass floors give views of the watery stream and recording is possible anywhere within the building - even outside the studio. (Gabriel probably picked up on this idea from Bob & Daniel Lanois, who experimented with this 'any location' recording at their old Grant Avenue Studio in Ontario, scene of many an Eno session.) There is even space for dancing and ample room for large groups, of which visiting world musicians are fond.
Understandably, Gabriel just wants the best possible environment for his future; one based on total independence and a firm commitment to ethnic music from all over the world. The international WOMAD office (World Of Music And Dance) is located nearby, and this summer saw the launch of Real World Records with Virgin. Along with music from Cuba, Zaire, and Pakistan comes Passion, Gabriel's reworking of his soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's controversial 1988 film 'The Last Temptation Of Christ'. Unequivocally, this is Peter Gabriel's finest hour. A 21-track masterpiece that allowed him to clarify his many diverse interests into one almighty statement. His aim was to bring the actual atmosphere of the Middle East 2000 years ago alive in the mind of the listener via the integration of sampling, virtuoso ethnic playing, and the usual inspired Gabrielese. To the hypnotic North African rhythms and sounds, Gabriel literally painted the music of Pakistan, Turkey, India, Ivory Coast, Bahrain, New Guinea, Senegal and Russia. The inspired playing of Indian violinist L. Shankar and trumpet minimalist Jon Hassell are just two of the performances that make Passion one of the most enthralling instrumental albums to be released this decade. Without further ado, what follows is my track-by-track analysis of Peter Gabriel's Passion.
(Real World CD/LP I: Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ, a film by Martin Scorsese.)
The Feeling Begins
This opens with a beautiful synth atmosphere by Gabriel, mixed with the plaintive sound of sampled Duduk music from Armenia. (The full effect of the latter can be gained from listening to Djivan Gasparyan's I Will Not Be Sad In This World, a recent release on Brian Eno's Land label.) This is doubled with L. Shankar's double violin. A plethora of hand drums and finger shakers provide the percussive back-beat, while understated guitar and David Bottrill's drone mix add the layers. After reaching a crescendo, the whole seems to literally disappear down a plughole of sound with a solid final drum strike. Ennervating.
The sound of someone straining quite hard to drag a huge object across an ocean, in this case an ocean of desert, as the haunting voices of the cold Saharan night keep vigil. Gabriel uses flute and voices in quite a fearful way. The late Brion Gysin would feel at home with this track.
Of These, Hope/Lazarus Raised/Of These Hope (Reprise)
Mustafa Abdel Aziz's opening pipe drones remind me of the music of The Master Musicians Of Joujouka, in the Atlas mountains. The talking drum beat of this track is incredibly addictive, and once heard is difficult to get out of one's head. Though Shankar and David Rhodes provide good background violin and guitar, it is Gabriel's Prophet 5 contribution that gives the wonderful drum sound its proper melodic accompaniment. Gabriel also adds support on bass and percussion. This segues nicely into the Kurdish duduk intro of 'Lazarus Raised', which is underlayed by a subtle oriental shimmering. A melodic bridge from the previous track is made by Gabriel on an Akai sampled piano, and thus the talking drum of the previous track is reiterated in a fabulous reprise.
A difficult track to place. Its brooding atmosphere conveys the breathing, mental anguish of somebody in deep despair. Unnerving pulsations and windy sand-strewn voicings complete an aurally bleak but, in the context of the LP, apt picture.
A Different Drum
Here we are treated to Gabriel with African friends going heavy on the percussion as Youssou N'Dour comes in vocally in his native Wolof language. It may be an interesting use of the Senegalese 'mbalax' rhythms but Gabriel's hoarse background vocals make the track too secular sounding, too obviously man-made given the mysterious quality of previous tracks.
According to the sleeve notes, 'this was written around a traditional Egyptian rhythm which is performed to fend off evil.' The ominous thundery beginning gives way to a sinewy dancing rhythmic tune, somewhat like an Egyptian sun dance. David Rhodes (guitar), Nathan East (bass) and Gabriel's complex sampling/keyboard work give 'Zaar' the quality of ECM jazz at its finest. The melodic fluency, tactile use of ethnic percussion, and the spritely sound of David Rhodes' additional acoustic guitar picking combine to make this one of the album's best moments.
More unsettled music, this time with famed jazz drummer Billy Cobham at the helm. Both David Sancious and Peter Gabriel give backing vocal performances which are full of Islamic influences.
Just a duet between Shankar and Gabriel, but what music! Shankar, famed for his late Seventies work with guitarist John McLaughlin, imbues this piece with a raga-like quality. Gabriel ably assists on Prophet and Akai keyboards. Both mesh vocals are, in a word, spiritual - in another, astounding.
Before Night Falls
Here a Turkish ney flute plays a traditional Armenian melody in the fashion of the duduk. Again Shankar is on hand (contributing to no less than 12 of the album's 21 tracks) and Gabriel's handling of Hossam Ramzy's percussion is right on.
With This Love
Refreshingly, Gabriel ends Side Two of Passion with a classically oriented piece, familiarly religious in its medieval cum classical way. Robin Canter plays sonorous cor anglais and oboe. Gabriel, David Sancious and Shankar provide subtle backdrop on keyboards, synths and violin respectively. A suitably serious interlude.
Again, dragging sound effects and spooky atmospheres conjure up the effect of the title. Location Moroccan percussion and vocals spike the bleak soundscape. Manu Katche contributes on percussion. On the whole, an example of visceral soundtrack music that more people should be making.
Here the use of the Arabic stringed kementche instrument etches mosques and ornate calligraphy in the listener's mind. A perfect example of how Gabriel gets away from cliche and opts for the ethnic over the western classical to convey a profound religious fable.
A real humdinger of a track! At 7 minutes 36 seconds it's the longest and, as the main theme, necessarily the most interesting. Jon Hassell, the Memphis minimalist trumpeter, contributes some fine passages. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan hits some arching top notes as he bursts forth with the strange sounding 'Qawwali voice', the lynchpin of the music of the mystical Sufis. (Ali Khan is considered its greatest living practitioner!) I swear to you, his voice could melt glass, it is so pure. The Brazilian percussion of Djalma Correa has a surprisingly Australian tinge. Gabriel links the track with the overall scheme of things by the use of familiar tonal backdrops, while Shankar and Youssou N'Dour add exactly the right touches. By the end, one feels that something has changed. Spellbinding.
With This Love - Choir
'And you can hear the angels sing...' Robin Canter's cor anglais unites with an actual boys choir to point things at the spires and beyond.
Wall Of Breath
Again come the musical winds, afresh with Turkish ney flute and Shankar's violin (sounding, in places, like Michael Brook's infinite guitar). The Musicians Du Nil and David Rhodes add more texture, and Gabriel adds organic synthesizers. Definitely Eno territory.
The Promise Of Shadows
Rhodes, Bottrill, Gabriel and Cobham get together for a sinister humming percussive play. Those shivering background voices are effectively frightening, and when the drums stop and the ghostly wail comes in the strangeness bites deep into your bones.
Shankar eloquently bows his violin, reinforcing the theme of sadness. A strong tabla enters, then an Arabic percussion loop and other African rhythms. This fades into a refrain, courtesy of Gabriel's Fairlight and Prophet 5 set-up, not dissimilar to the mountain call of the Atlas tribes. Strange.
It Is Accomplished
The ending of the previous track provides the introduction for the widescreen production here. The keyboard and piano motifs are pure Gabriel, familiar epic chordings that have appeared on many a solo album. Billy Cobham gets a bit carried away, and with mostly Western musicians involved the piece leans too heavily towards commercial filler. Even Gabriel's stacked vocals are too contrived to match the class of material already discussed. Definitely something that could only work as audio background to the visual.
Bread And Wine
Almost folk, this ballad-like tone poem has David Rhodes on sustained Ebow guitar, Gabriel on contrabass, Prophet 5 and voice, Shankar and Richard Evans on tin whistle. The latter instrument forms the track's kernel, adding the suitably prophetic touch. The more restrained use of Gabriel's aching vocals works wonders here. As the album's final cut, nothing could be more appropriate.
Produced by Peter Gabriel. Engineered by David Bottrill. Mixed by Gabriel/Bottrill.
What makes Passion so good is the sense of quest that comes through the music, this matching of Christ's obvious thirst with that of the composer himself. In 1988, during the course of an Independent newspaper interview, Gabriel spoke at length about his cathartic journey through depth psychology, psychiatry, sensory deprivation tanks, and all manner of therapies. He has said that the hallucinatory effect of sensory deprivation is quite interesting and might come in useful at Real World. This enquiring and self-analytical side to his personality will hopefully be given broader scope in the form of the Real World Experience Park, a concept whereby people can experience for themselves mental journeys into artists' worlds. A very advanced idea, it already has the support of R.D. Laing, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and Terry Gilliam, with Barcelona presently tipped as being the likely place for its location. No wonder Passion stands out from the sea of instrumental imitators. The mind that made it is continually thinking into the future.
After 'The Last Temptation Of Christ' film came out in August 1988, seven more painstaking months were spent on the music to create the actual record. What follows is an insider's view of the recording process by Gabriel's right-hand man, engineer David Bottrill.
"We worked on the soundtrack and the album for 11 to 12 months approximately. We prepared the music at the new Real World studio and then went to New York to set up several studios in the dubbing theatre building, where Scorsese and his crew were layering the sound to the picture. This was the old Brill Building [of Carole King fame] and Martin and his editor were working very hard there on getting the music accurately to the film. We spent about five weeks there, primarily to remix and record new parts, but just as important to add additional overdubbing to later reels. The film process is complicated because you have to layer the music on to the picture one reel at a time, even one segment at a time. After the film part was finished, we brought everything back to England. Here the music was wholly reworked and remixed with more overdubs for the actual LP. In Peter's words, he 'wanted the music to stand as a body of work in its own right, as an album.' He didn't just want a film soundtrack where the music is transferred from the film straight on to disc. Any process of reworking is seldom, if ever, done. [Note: Philip Glass did in fact do something similar for the Francis Coppola presentation 'Powaqqatsi', in 1988, for its Elektra/Nonesuch release on disc/CD.] Personally, I think the album represents the film but the music is of a better standard on the LP."
Gabriel's Real World studio complex near Bath, England, is a departure from the standard studio design, with considerable emphasis having been placed on the use of natural materials and daylight to create a refreshingly stimulating environment in which to work.
Bottrill: "His studio is based on a multi-flexible concept. A musician can set up and play anywhere in the complex and still be picked up and recorded in the control room. This is very helpful when large groups of musicians are present, because they can be split up and recorded wherever they want. Still, Peter does most of his work in the control room - particularly vocals, keyboards and any direct interaction with other musicians. You'd regularly get four different signal inputs happening at once. This was helpful for communication, since quite a few of the musicians couldn't speak English but they could see the technology and what was happening. The recording with the singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his ensemble from Pakistan was an incredibly memorable one, and the facilities contributed to its quality."
Despite the awesome array of state-of-the-art equipment at Real World, during the recording of Passion Gabriel drew inspiration once again from some of his favourite equipment, such as the Delta Lab DL2 delay linked to a computer.
Bottrill: "This is an old unit but useful at creating random stereo delays, which helps in getting atmospheres. The Quantec Room Simulator is another one. More or less a reverb unit with a 'freeze' capacity, which can freeze the reverb instantly. One can build up a chord with just vocal notes, then freeze it on the Quantec and hold it for use as a chord drone. You see, Peter wanted to create a lot of atmosphere. We had a number of tapes with multitrack drones at the same pitch but always in different styles. What we did with these multitrack tapes was to play the drones in key with the music and mix them as the tracks went along, in order to give them a different texture. This makes the drones come alive."
"We set up a mobile studio with the help of an Effanel desk. We used it on live recordings. It's not really like an SSL console, more like a workshop bench with reverbs and delays. Most of the atmopherics were created here. We did some beautiful work with Shankar, both in New York and England. He now has his own group, called the Epidemics, and tours India often. An incredible musician."
Was there a conscious effort by Peter to play down his technology interest by concentrating on an ethnic approach to the album?
"Not necessarily downplay, more a desire to create an organic bond between the electronic and the acoustic. That's our continual aim, to keep things as warm and as organic as we can. With 'The Last Temptation Of Christ', the story was that of a human struggle told as a religious story. Since the film was shot in Morocco, Peter literally wanted to write the landscape. It was a very down to earth exercise. The landscape of Morocco or Egypt lends itself to what Christianity and religion was really like, not the traditional stereotyped images of 1500 years later. If you think about it, there were no orchestras or choirs at the time. The music had to be more drum, ethnic, traditionally tribal or folk orientated. The actual film portrays the people themselves as being dirty - straight in off the desert. Therefore Peter tried to convey a similar atmosphere of ethnicity through the use of location recordings."
As Peter Gabriel's right-hand man, engineer Dave Bottrill is in an enviable position. So how did he land the job?
"I'm Canadian. I started at Grant Avenue Studios, Ontario - straight out of business college with Bob and Daniel Lanois, who you know. Being a musician I started helping out and hanging out, and assisted them as house engineer. Then they sold it! I joined Dan on the recording of Peter's So album. When it was finished in 1986 Dan went back to Hamilton in Canada, so I had a choice - come with him or stay in England. Joni Mitchell was recording an album [Chalkmark In A Rainstorm] at Peter's place [Ashcombe House] and help was required, so I stayed. [Note: great duet by Peter and Joni on opening track 'Secret Place'.] I stayed working for Peter, doing 'B' sides and reworking things, plus of course helping with the new studio. Dan came back with Robbie Robertson for his 1987 album, so I helped on that. I remember Bono [of U2] even coming over to do overdub vocals on that album."
"I was involved with this new studio quite a bit. Just working out the best working sites for equipment, and so on. Neil Grant designed the studios and control rooms. Mike Large was also involved. Field & Clegg are the firm of architects who were involved in the interior design of the complex and, of course, the re-building of the mill. We've got three control rooms here, one of which is specifically Peter's private facility, the other two are fully commercial. At the moment we are restructuring the track 'A Different Drum' as a new single release."
In the absence of Mr. Gabriel, I asked Dave if he was happy with the album.
"Yes, it stands up very proud. Something that we wanted to avoid was 'Peter Gabriel goes New Age'. One couldn't really avoid the soul of the man - it breathes very strong music. One can sit down and listen to this as a piece of music, unlike you know what. I was very proud to work on something with such a variety of people from such far flung places as New Guinea and Senegal... Ali Khan and Shankar... such a diverse group of people... such a rare experience. It will be far and again before I have the opportunity to be involved with such a project. In short, it was an honour and a privilege. Working for seven months made the LP come through as a piece of work in its own right. I believe, and Peter believes in his heart of hearts, that it stands up on its own."
Peter Gabriel has recently stated that the idealism of the Sixties has had a great effect on his musical journey. 'Innovative and interesting,' he described the music of those times, something that with so many contemporary rock musicians has been lost to fashion and hype. Gabriel will continue to innovate. His next album will probably be a compilation of unreleased and live tracks. A bigger double LP project will follow, one disc rhythmic and percussive, the other highly melodic and atmospheric. For now, Passion is his saving grace, a testament to his position as one of the world's finest orchestrators of multi-cultural music.
It is well worth investigating the companion LP Passion Sources (RWLP2) for the ethnic roots music at the core of the project. Shahen-Shah by Pakistan's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, La Explosion Del Momenta by Cuba's Orquesta Reve, and Babeti Sokous by Zaire's Tabu Ley are also available through Real World.
Real World Records, (Contact Details).
Feature by Mark Prendergast
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