Thursday, July 16, 2009

Après le deluge, moi...

Recently, a good friend and I were arguing about producers. We'd long since settled our differences over notorious opinion-splitter Steve Albini; the current contention hinged on why I have overwhelming respect for Mark Ellis - nom de production Flood - and kinda none for William Orbit. After all, both are brand-name British knob-twiddlers who've put their fingerprints on albums by some of the biggest names in mainstream music over the past twenty years, particularly dance-friendly pop acts with an electronic edge. What's the rub?

Well, in a nutshell, Flood specializes in manipulating sound from a physical source, whereas Orbit typically generates them synthetically. Even if the end results sound markedly similar, the difference is fundamental. Remember what Kevin Shields said when asked why he manually cranked a parametric EQ on the guitar during the mixdown of "I Only Said" as opposed to just using a wah-wah pedal: "It's as much about the approach as the sound."

Orbit started by playing in a dance act, Bassomatic. As you can see, he worked a full raft of electronics, samplers, drum machines, and the like, but nowhere in frame is there a "real" instrument, save the human voice. In fact, the only band (in the conventional sense) that Orbit ever produced was Blur; I'll grant that 13 is probably my favourite record of theirs, but I'd chalk that more up to the wannabe-Pavement songwriting & shambolic performances than the handful of twists in the production.

Flood, on the other hand, cut his teeth capturing the sound of wood & steel reverberating in a room. For me, the ne plus ultra of Flood's discography is his work on the first six Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds records, in particular the skeletal, claustrophobic cacophony of From Her To Eternity. On this debut album (both the band's and Flood's as titled producer), there is so little post-production cluttering the mix that the whole record highlights Flood's skill at capturing ambiance & sculpting a space purely through microphone placement.

Over the course of his work with the Bad Seeds, Flood honed what would become his signature techniques. "Deanna" (from the Bad Seeds' fifth, Tender Prey) is a perfect example of that super-compressed drum sound smacked with gated reverb that's now one of his signets. Also, several guitars worth of feedback are woven with various vocal hoots & hollers to create a layered, vaguely disorienting backdrop for Cave's murder barnburner. True, Orbit does very much the same thing, in terms of lush mixes carefully constituted of zipper-locked tonal strata. But doing that with sinewave-generators & softsynths - slavishly obedient digital Lego blocks of sound - is fuckin' nothing compared to doing that with a roomful of drunks & junkies armed with instruments.

When he began working with Depeche Mode, Flood started supplementing these painstakingly frequency-stacked textures with synthetic & artificial sources, including samplers, keyboards, and especially reverb & delay effects. Despite the icy, inhuman edge this gave the music, Flood still trafficked heavily in the manipulation of sounds from a physical source. To raise the obvious example, "Personal Jesus" featured processed percussion, human breath gated & run through a vocoder, and different reverbs applied to different tracks of a doubled vocal line.

Then came the crash course in high-gloss megastar pop when Flood began engineering U2 records, beginning with The Joshua Tree. Working with sound sculptors supreme Lanois & Eno was a brilliant pairing (as far as production was concerned; let it be said I can't fuckin' stand U2) that delivered the band their biggest albums to date. Despite the bumper crop of new sounds & sonic gags that peppered Achtung Baby in particular, virtually no digital instruments were used, apparently in keeping with the band's desire to be able to faithfully reproduce the album live. The lazery sting at the beginning of "Even Better Than The Real Thing", for example, is just a guitar running through a Digitech Whammy pedal.

Flood finally took on production duties for what many consider, quite rightfully, to be a trainwreck of an album, Zooropa. Part of the mess has to do with the deliberately curtailed period that U2 gave themselves to both write & record the album (three months between legs of the Zoo TV Tour). Part of it has to do with someone with as coarse a sense of irony as Bono going through an identity crisis while desperately trying to straddle the end-of-history zeitgeist of the early '90s. "Lemon" even sounds like something that molted off of an Orbit remix of Madonna's "Justify My Love" or some such bullshit. And yet again, the difference is that Larry Mullen's really playing those drums (as opposed to using those same fuckin' "Hot Pants" and "Think" loops everyone fuckin' used) and the tremolo wash is, once more, heavily processed & effected guitar, not some canned Kurzweil organ patch.

As his oeuvre expanded to include albums with Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins, Flood was armed with a much broader pallette. He could apply his decade behind the boards and uncanny ear for constructing aural environments to projects that would otherwise be bare-bones and straightforward, like PJ Harvey. To many, especially in the infancy of her career, Harvey recalled Patti Smith impersonating Nick Cave (or perhaps vice versa) so it made sense for Flood to recycle a few tricks from his days with the Bad Seeds: brooding organs, stripped-down arrangements, and capturing a powerful (as opposed to technically perfect) performance. Whether it was thanks to the rising stock of the producer's imprint or because of a synergy between performer and production, lead single "Down By The Water" became PJ Harvey's biggest hit ever.

But on a handful of tracks, like "Long Snake Moan", Flood was a little too eager to keep pursuing the experiments he'd begun with NIN and the Pumpkins - unsubtle treatments such as overdubbing an identical guitar riff five times, each with a different tone of distortion; staticky drum triggers; SansAmp on everything. These songs have dated the hardest in perhaps the whole Harvey catalogue, given that Flood's signature sounds had reached saturation levels of radioplay by the mid-'90s thanks to, well, NIN and the Pumpkins. The more spartan songs (e.g. "Down By the Water", "Working For the Man", "Come On Billy") hold up well because they're well-written songs, delivered honestly, captured faithfully.

...Though perhaps not as honestly, faithfully, nor ferally as the album history has decided is PJ Harvey's unimpeachable classic, the Steve Albini-produced Rid of Me.

From there, Flood seems to have suffered from the same wanton self-referentiality that afflicted everyone who wasn't a fratboy date-rapist in the late '90s. To wit, "The Perfect Drug" (while it may actually be my favourite NIN song ever) sounds less like a single than an abstract encapsulation of everything Trent Reznor has ever done in four minutes. That Flood didn't even work on the track is a testament to how pervasive his influence had become upon big-money-backed music. Hell, check out the tone of those live drums - that's the same sound from "Deanna" back in '88!

Now a 25-year veteran of the recording industry, Flood's engineering has gained a certain transparency, his imprimatur on the records he makes less obvious (something that cannot, for better or worse, be said of either Albini or Orbit). Take the latest Sigur Ros release - I'd never have guessed this was a Flood record. All I'd have recognized is that these twee Icelanders are clearly on some kinda saccharine Animal Collective new-primitivist bullshit, and I've got no fucking time for that.

But shit, Flood didn't write that garbage, and he's made almost 10 goddamn records that I listen to and wish I'd made. Respect is due.

(Not to mention Orbit's responsible for Madonna's somehow-worse-than-the-original rendition of "American Pie". That's burning your union card, pal. No forgiveness.)

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