Composer VIKRAM SHANKAR Celebrates 20th Anniversary Of DEVIN TOWNSEND's OCEAN MACHINE In BraveWords Challenge
September 26, 2017, a year ago
Devin Townsend released his second official solo album, Ocean Machine: Biomech - best known amongst fans simply as Ocean Machine - in July 1997. During an interview with BraveWords upon the album's release, Townsend referred to Ocean Machine as his "attempt at a big dumb rock record" even though it was far more than that, featuring progressive and ambient elements along with the heavy rock vibe. It is widely regarded as some of the best work of his career, the flipside to the violent nature of Strapping Young Lad that made Townsend a household name in the metal world.
This feature took shape following a news update shift, when I stumbled across a post by Swedish pop metallers Amaranthe featuring a cover of their polarizing track "That Song" by US-based composer Vikram Shankar. It was, in my estimation, far superior to the original and led to the discovery that Shankar is a metal fan and regularly composes / arranges his own versions of metal songs when not working on original material.
I can't stand 'That Song'.... I like a lot of Amaranthe material, I love the people in the band, but I've never been able to wrap my brain around that particular track because it's so pop radio to an uncomfortable extreme. When I heard Vikram's jazz-oriented version of 'That Song' I was blown away; I'd absolutely love to hear Elize Ryd sing on his version (a subtle hint if you're reading, Elize). Going through Vikram's catalogue of material I was very impressed by a lot of it and Evergrey frontman Tom Englund's request / suggestion that he cover "Distance" was the icing on the cake. I sent Vikram my compliments, which eventually led to the idea of me challenging him to cover something for the BraveWords readership.
The initial plan was that Vikram would submit a list of his favourite metal bands and I would pick one song for him to compose and arrange as a piano piece. At the time Devin's planned Ocean Machine 20th Anniversary show in Bulgaria was a major news item, and knowing that Vikram is a Devin Townsend fan it seemed to be the perfect challenge for his talents. But not just one song from Ocean Machine.... the whole damn album! He was totally into the idea and the end result - a bloody masterpiece - speaks for itself.
Enjoy, and please note that no money changed hands, and nothing human, animal, mineral or vegetable was sacrificed to bring this together. It was created and is presented for the love of music.
Following is a chat with Vikram Shankar about his work.
BraveWords: What's the creative process like for you when you decide you want to make your own rendition of a song? Is it something where the compositions come about based strictly on instinct or is there a lot of trial and error involved?
Vikram: "At this point, I'm lucky enough to have a reliable instinct when it comes to arranging melody and harmony on the keyboard, which has come from both years of adapting rock/pop/metal music to the keyboard and from my classical studies. So now I'm at the point where all I really have to do is listen to a song a couple times, memorize the melody and harmony, and then I can walk over to the piano and pretty much play it the way I want to. Of course, for some of the more progressive and heavy material, this process may take longer, and for death metal riffs in particular it usually takes some trial and error to see what is the best way to adapt to the different medium. Typically, however, I don't bother transcribing to sheet music before recording as the process of writing out music takes more effort than is necessary for me (the most recent exception being my arrangement of the first single from Anneke van Giersbergen's new metal project VUUR since the song is on the complex side and I wanted to capture every detail and have the video out the same day of single release!). But I would say that 95% of the time, it's not a question of trial and error so much as pure instinct and knowing how melodies and progressions work best on the piano for my personal style and taste."
BraveWords: What goes through your mind when Evergrey's Tom Englund "suggests" covering one of his songs?
Vikram: "I don't think I will ever quite get used to the people I look up to appreciating what I do, let alone actually asking to hear my take on their artistry! Tom's band Evergrey was one of my deepest loves and inspirations musically and personally through my musical maturation, and his music and voice is still incredibly close to my heart. I have become fortunate enough to become good friends with Tom this year thanks to the magic of Facebook, and every now and then I have a 'holy crap!' moment that I'm even talking with him on a personal level, let alone that he has interest in my humble art. Trippy stuff. Making that arrangement in particular ('Distance') was stressful for me because I look up to the man so much, and to the rest of the band, and I knew they were going to be listening to it. However, I knew they already enjoyed a one-minute video of the song I posted on Instagram, so I knew the kind of vibe and stylistic approach that would resonate with them. It was a blast to make, and has ended up becoming one of my favorite arrangements I've ever done."
BraveWords: I'm guessing you knew the Ocean Machine album quite well before diving in. Did you put any pressure on yourself creating this monster or did it more or less write / arrange itself based on how well you knew the songs?
Vikram: "Devin Townsend is my personal favorite artist, and one of my greatest inspirations. I know Ocean Machine quite well, and many songs on the record, like 'Funeral', 'Bastard', and 'The Death Of Music' are really close to my heart. Surprisingly enough, I had never actually thought about playing any of this music on piano before. I tried to approach it based on instinct as I mentioned in the earlier question, but some songs did require more trial and error to see how to make them feel the best on the solo instrument. 'The Death Of Music' in particular, with its fascinating soundscapes and textures, was a real head-scratcher, and what I ended up doing on the medley is a sort of compromise, accepting that certain things - like spoken word - I simply can't do on the piano. There definitely was a sense of pressure going into this only because the record's legacy is so monumental, its sense of atmosphere so unique and unmatchable, truly one of those precious records with a sonic and emotional signature all its own. Whenever I play Devin's music, I know there's a lot I will be missing because of the constraints of my medium, so I try to just accept that and make the piano performance on its own terms as strong as it can be. That's all I can ever do, really."
BraveWords: How easy or hard was it to arrange the medley? The Ocean Machine album has a ridiculously brilliant flow that (in my opinion) more or less decides that you WILL listen to the entire thing in one go. Separate tracks are awesome but it also works as a full package / presentation. How difficult was it cutting pieces out even though your intention was to stay as true as possible to the original?
Vikram: "That's always the challenge with album medleys. I've done a few - for a couple Anathema records and Pain Of Salvation's Remedy Lane - and not only does it kill me to have to cut some much incredible music, but messing with the flow of the record is always agonizing. What I try to do instead is create my own sense of flow with my medleys, which sometimes means rearranging tracks, and always means reworking transitions between songs. For Ocean Machine for instance, I switched 'Night' and 'Life', and transposed 'Night' up a half-step. I'm liberal with my treatment of keys when I do medleys, and pitch-sensitive listeners will note that 'Night', 'Regulator', and 'Funeral' are in different keys from the original version. Through years of practice, I have a fairly reliable instinct of how to make music flow, when to cut from one piece to another, and what to transpose, to make the music flow as well as possible. I guess that would make me a decent club DJ (laughs)."
BraveWords: "Bastard" is one of my favourite tracks off Ocean Machine. You did a brilliant job here...
Vikram: "I'm glad you enjoyed that one. ‘Bastard' was another challenging song for me to arrange, not just because of its sheer length but also because structurally the key to its magic in a sense is repetition of a form and the gradual building of tension through ambient layers, vocal parts, etc. over a crushing guitar riff - all things I can't do on piano! I would love to do a complete cover of the song sometime, but if I was to do so I would have to deal with that hurdle. One of the advantages of medleys is that you can conveniently circumvent some practical musical problems like that, and the listeners won't object quite as strongly."
Bravewords: Did you record this medley all in one take?
Vikram: "Believe it or not, every single piano video I've ever uploaded to my YouTube has been done in one take. In the beginning, this was a practical constraint - I wasn't adept enough at video editing to smooth over a transition between video takes without someone noticing. Combine with the fact that I never record my arrangements to a metronome - and am typically extremely free with regards to rhythm and phrasing - so it's near impossible for me to mime for a video track (as is common practice for music videos and playthroughs), and basically, it’s just easier for me to nail it in one take. Practical considerations aside, I do believe there’s a certain magic that comes from one epic performance, especially some of the 15, 20 and 30 minute videos I've done, like my arrangement of 'The Greatest Show On Earth' by Nightwish - another 28 minute one-taker. It reminds me of my days playing classical music, and how part of the challenge in executing a 15/20 minute piece is stamina and maintaining focus. I always appreciate that when I watch live music, be it a solo classical pianist or Dream Theater, and I aspire to that same level of stamina and control in my own playing."
BraveWords: Aside from doing these cover arrangements, you also have your project Our Destiny. Tell us about that along with any other projects you have on the go.
Vikram: "Our Destiny is an interesting project for me. It started as a cover project with me and the incredible Texas-based singer Lauren Nolan, and it has remained that way for 6 years now. This might seem strange, especially since I always have such a drive to create original music, but I'm also fairly green at writing for singers, and only this past year have I written a song for a singer that I was truly happy with. In the beginning, we were working with really awful recording quality - she used to record on a terrible cell phone that could only do 30 seconds of video at a time! - but with time the quality both in terms of recording equipment and overall artistry has steadily improved, to the point where I'm as proud of our arrangements together now as I am of much of my original music. We do have ambitions of releasing original music together, and performing live shows, but we're taking our time with that. I'm writing so much original music right now that adding another project would probably result in a bad case of artistic schizophrenia (laughs). Hopefully soon we will have some original music to share though, because Lauren's voice is truly too magical to not have it showcased on original compositions.
“On the subject of other projects, I feel like this is an appropriate point to mention that I do have a lot of exciting stuff in the pipeline. One is my own band, which has not been unveiled yet; it's an instrumental prog outfit with guest vocals on one song from one of my absolute favorite singers in the galaxy. Another is a project that I think will make a lot of people really excited - I'm co-writing for that with a really incredible songwriter and singer, and I think the result is going to be amazing. It's too bad so much of this isn't unveiled yet, but all I can say is that fun things are coming soon! If you dig what I do, in any capacity, you'll dig this stuff."
BraveWords: Interested in taking another challenge in a year or so?
Vikram: "Absolutely - or sooner! It was an absolute pleasure working with you, and I can't thank you enough for your support and kind words. And thanks for being the catalyst for me to pay tribute to one of the most special albums in modern music."
Watch Shankar take the Ocean Machine challenge:
(Top photo by: Brian Craft)