One Man Madness Vol. I: Cal Scott
Ahh, the thrill of musical collaboration. When a band is a well-oiled machine, the results can become more than the sum of their parts. There is a special satisfaction when that riff you just couldn’t finish finds finality in the hands of a fellow musician. But of course, there are also disparate opinions to deal with. Sometimes, creative forces can’t quite meet in the middle. Or maybe the product is brilliant, but the players can’t stand each other. Even more basic, a musician may simply be alone; bursting with brilliant ideas but adrift in a void that simply doesn’t share the vision. Some may linger in that uncreative limbo, but there are those who dive into solitude and craft their own vision from that empty landscape. To these individuals, that vision has no limit. Free from the constraints of others, they are able to wear whatever mask they please and create multiple musical entities. Join me as we kick off this series by exploring the music of Cal Scott, a solo artist from Scotland whose twisted, mechanical vision can’t be contained in a single project.
Late last year, I discovered an insane band called Umbah while browsing the “avant-garde” tag on Metal Archives. Imagine an animatronic tech death band with all the robot members linked to a single operating system on a computer. Now imagine some aliens came along and infected that computer with a virus, and that band now plays a highly technical, yet hideously warped form of the strangest electronic death metal you’ve heard. Now imagine that it’s all the work of one human, because it is. After diving into Umbah, I discovered 16 albums starting back in the mid-nineties, and then about a month after my initial listening, another one was released. I also discovered over a dozen other side projects, collaborations, and conceptual pieces, all born from the vision of one guy named Cal Scott. While many of these projects feature participation from other individuals, Cal’s unique brand of insanity is clear as the driving force behind all of it. Utterly fascinated by his constant productivity and eclectic output, I reached out to Cal for an interview. He was kind enough to provide some great insight into his process.
First off, could you tell us a little about yourself? How you got started playing music, how long you’ve been playing metal, whatever else you’d like to share.
Cal: For many years now I have been exploring the other ‘cyber’ dimension of metal. I only respond with emotion to LEDs and sci-fi bleeps. Recently I have built a shiny new U.F.O. with a lot of wires and enhanced A.I. systems. It makes me happier than everyone else I know, I am very proud of it and treat it well. Its main function is to be a recording studio of obscure music that is too difficult for human consumption. It has produced around 30 albums spread over 7 projects that are always at the edge of technological and compositional possibilities. The music is mainly in the industrial, metal, classical and electronic genres, often combined. When not recording I also enjoy inventing automated avant-garde VSTs (Virtual Studio Technology) that I use in my productions. I also make fractal album covers.
It all got started listening to a ton of great death metal from the Florida and Swedish scenes. This music taught me how to listen with intensity and maintain a concentrated mindset. The mighty Scott Burns gave me an early appreciation for production. It was an acquired skill for me; it was not easy at first to follow what every instrument is doing in tech-death.
One day I was walking round the crazy back street music shops in Brighton, and you know they are packed with a ton of cool stuff, and always have really amazing used selection. So for 100 quid you could easy pick up a decent guitar and amp. These days I only have a [Gibson] Shark Fin, a mic and a midi controller, the other instruments are virtual.
Navigating your huge and diverse catalog is a daunting, but rewarding task. One thing that immediately sticks out is the Kosmikov project, where you did a virtual rendering of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. Can you tell me a little about that one? I absolutely love the Beethoven string quartets, particularly the later ones.
Cal: This was like an archaeological experiment. Beethoven’s Late Quartets really hit crazy levels of complexity and speed. He was loved for his symphonies but his passions at the avant-garde weren’t so appreciated. When these works, especially the Grosse Fugue, were performed live, it totally did everyone’s head in. It was so complex and contemporary they thought it was a dissonant noise. He was criticized heavily and he had to rewrite a more acceptable ending. It stands out as a very unique piece.
I recorded this blind in the sense that I had never listened to the original, I just had the notes in the score. I thought it would be more fun this way. I wanted to make a technical exercise in order to improve and test some new virtual machines, and I was curious to understand this most complex piece.
Also, I wanted to have a good version to listen to! It sounds crazy, but even the most virtuosic players of today have difficulty nailing it. I can imagine the quartets of his day would have lacked the precision at high speeds needed and they probably interpreted it in a slower, watered down way. The current Kosmikov version does have its weaknesses as well. It is still a v.1; the next version will be more definitive and have louder, tighter sounds with better dynamics and more realism.
Cal: I had a lucky start in Necrosanct, it was awesome. These guys taught me how to be in a band, write music, and make albums. It was really extreme death/grind. The first album Incarnate had a few tracks that don’t stop except for a few djanks here and there (Stockhausen’s note to self: start using “djank” regularly). Really great stuff. After this it was Microcosm, which was more tech-death. We only recorded one demo, and it sounds a bit shit, but the music and performance are still awesome. That’s one band where really wished we had recorded all the tracks and made a cool album! Since then I have been a drummer and a bassist and guitarist and started various bands that never got going. Then a few years back I toured Eastern Europe as a guitarist with really extreme Brazilian goregrinders Cativiero!
What led you to become so active in solo/mostly solo projects?
Cal: Well it’s not easy to find the right musicians, I wanted to continue and not wait around. I also like the speed, the results, and the whole vibe, I really am totally happy with this. There’s a lot of freedom and the ability to realise an idea fast.
When you do collaborate, how do those relationships come about?
Cal: I have had awesome friends and fans contribute. It’s been a mix of online collaborators who were listeners of Umbah and get in contact, and also real world encounters, which are usually pure chance, and often not musicians. If someone is able to appreciate music and the headspace behind my projects, there is usually a way they can contribute something. Most recently is a collaboration with Alma, she plays a dual Khaoss Pad and keyboard. She sings on the Kardah9 album, and then also a lot on all the Jaar of Nezborlan albums, and we made a couple of artworks together.
How does a new project with a different name start? Do you become inspired and write music that doesn’t fit elsewhere, or do you set out with a new project in mind?
Cal: It’s around 50/50. Sometimes I start a new project because I write some music that doesn’t fit, some have been created from something specific I had in mind. Having a lot of projects is definitely helping me stay organized and remember and categorize all the music. Each album I make now can go somewhere and be a continuation of something I already have, so it gives an identity for everything.
Do you have to be in a certain frame of mind to write music for each project? What is the writing process like as you juggle so many different styles?
Cal: Yes, the frame of mind influences me a lot. I have a lot of experience now, so I can generate frame of mind, but sometimes it’s out of control, like an outpouring. Mainly it’s coldly calculated and I decide how I want to feel over the next period, which will decide the outcome. The writing process is a huge mix, it doesn’t matter the style, all music is composition at its core. On one level, a cybergrind track and a string quartet composition are virtually identical worlds to me.
Your project Jaar of Nezborlan seemed to take on a different feel after Orcazoid Invasion. You work on this project with a couple other people, what is the creative process like for that?
Cal: Jaar! Yes this one is off and on for sure. It’s a complex project that spans 5 albums with the first double disc Orcazoid Invasion being totally different. It’s really bonkers on a level of extremity, composition, experimental sound design, and genre mashing. Then it flips for albums 2, 3 and 4, in a whole different direction, and then again for the final album which is nearly finished. On the Orcazoid Invasion disc I had Matt of Corvid Canine play violin, so there are some interesting tracks with live performance. I asked Matt because his cybergrind project is insanely fast and chaotic.
Solomn Golom is a big departure from the rest of your work. How did that project come about?
Cal: I had an accident that caused half-deafness and severe ringing for about 5 months. I couldn’t produce anything that needed production or volume, and I was feeling kind of dead. You can hear a hollow and cold somberness, total sadness, a death of dreams. At the time I had no way of knowing if I would recover. For the last 18 months my hearing has repaired enough to continue production. The music and atmosphere of Solomn Golom reflects this period. All is good now.
Tell me about Queelum, and how that influences your other work. I really enjoy the abstract web of sounds; it feels similar to my (Stockhausen’s) work, or the music of Pierre Boulez.
Cal: These composers are both great innovators. I don’t know too much about either, but the serialism of Boulez is trying to ride the line between spontaneity and structure, while Stockhausen is focused more on combining electronics, so we are connected simply because we don’t limit our composing.
Queelum is one of my favorites, a sort of alien in the background who pulls all the strings and has plans to seed the entire universe with mad avant-garde compositions. Many may laugh at Queelum, but he has the last laugh as he opens the 4th dimension! But seriously, Queelum has been around nearly as long as Umbah, but it’s a much slower project. It all started in a score program with a basic piano sound in Cakewalk V1 around 20 years ago. I wrote 3 compositions… e voila! Queelum was born. I really liked just putting notes on the staff and moving them up and down and hearing the differences in intervals, so this was the beginning of what has turned out to be a long journey.
After a few experiments I started writing “Strathblendie,” this added in strings, classical guitar, a bit of production…and a lot of composition! This is difficult stuff to write and record, like 3 months of work for 5 minutes. It was really cutting edge virtual/analogue hybrid invention, chaining midi, with digital 8-track with external tone gens, inputting live performance of classical virtual instruments from midi guitar, etc. Several albums are sub par and unreleased, but there are 5 in total spanning 20 years, and I am currently in the process of evolving Queelum for several new releases this year.
On the first album, GemStar, you can hear the seeds of all the things I now combine, but then they were separated out. They were my first hybrid generative works; “Quantres40” for example, was almost all generated by processing another composition with a Fibonacci formula. It’s total nerd city, but music is math, and many composers have used math in formulating their structures. This virtuality is one of the things you can enjoy in Queelum, the way you can follow what you would expect real players to do, but not be limited by human possibilities. The other main compositional method I use in Queelum is fractals. Ah, yes. This was not easy, but I persevered. I must have failed a 1,000 times to understand this world, but when you can, it becomes very powerful, not necessarily because of the fact that you can make music with the help of fractal sequences, but because once you understand the fractal world you can apply the concepts to your guitar playing, your structures etc. The information you learn applies to everything in life, and makes you a bit more bionic or something…hahaha.
Now let’s talk about Umbah, as it seems like it’s your main project. It has progressed considerably over the impressive span of albums, and it seems like you’re constantly putting out great Umbah material. Is that something you’re always working on? What is the writing process like?
Cal: Umbah is my main and continuous project. In the last 3 years I changed style in that sense that before, I was nearly everyday doing a small amount. Now I have several big and more intense hits at it, separated with considerable time, and I always add in more processes to how I make it, which I obviously pick up from the other stuff I do. My style is all influenced by being a virtual studio composer, so I am not interested in being perfect. Instead, I concentrate on listening to the microelements and I make up the puzzle pieces in real time, making sure I have a lot of variations to play with to give valid musical fragments.
So imagine I have a riff. Then I run my machines like I mentioned earlier to generate variations, then these variations are resampled to give more variations, and I use all these micro components as my individual notes or phrases, which can be re-pitched, stretched, or quantized to fit any riff sequence I can imagine. I view multicore processors and virtual instruments in the same way a tech death drummer sees their instrument. Quite often simple iterative transformations can make interesting variations that are otherwise difficult to achieve. It’s a case of building
up hundreds of these tricks and having them ready like spells to cast whenever they are needed.
Every track is made differently. To give an example, I might repeat all this processing with drum patterns and get 100 tracks about 45 minutes long, but it will end up being 2 tracks of about 10 minutes. It’s a question of patience. It gets very abstract, searching for cool combinations that I know I wouldn’t write naturally, and composing with these pieces. If I hear a cool thing in a solo that’s not being used, I have to remember where it was and add it to the bank of components I will use in the track somewhere. Then when I hear the right point in the track I can try it out, which could be an hour later after listening to 10,000 snares and other riffs. This is Umbah, it’s no easy ride to make it, but I am sure most people can appreciate that. It’s an invented process that I continually evolve; eventually at the end, with all these elements joined and sculpted together in the right way, it becomes seamless, and the listener is unaware of the extent of its virtuality. It’s totally insane, but it works.
How did Umbah come about?
Cal: When I got a Fostex 4 track. The recording world just made sense to me straight away. But I was really crap back then so I had to get creative, and the equipment was basic and low quality, but learning the hard way does have its advantages. The main thing to grab me straight away was how I could build up parts over the 4 tracks. Then I got a cool Dr. Rhythm drum machine, started pounding blast beats into the poor thing, and made some early cybergrind recordings. Totally live and raw stuff. Not long after this I get a bit of understanding of how to program the thing properly and I started making what turn out to be the first Umbah demos. At this point its still all sounds like total shit, but it was a lot of fun. I never had any expectations so I just continued learning and experimenting. Around ‘92 I picked up a bass and a synth, and a few years later I got a Roland 8 track. This upped the quality and possibilities a lot, it even had 64 virtual tracks so there were a lot of tricks you could start pulling. I was chaining it to a 486 PC and the first midi guitar. After a lot of failing, crashing, rebooting and general early tech nightmares, I did against all the odds kick out the first real Umbah album, Continuum, around 95′. It was a really incredible landmark for me and I guess after this one, there was almost no way of turning back. Its great to hear the early cybermetal mixed with electrogoth and industrial, then it can flip to tech-death and cybergrind, with classical, glitchy electronic edits and dark ambient mixed in. Wow! That’s one adventurous album that I will always be real proud of. And then of course I continued to record another 15 full-length Umbah albums over last 20 years.
You’ve released Umbah material through I, Voidhanger records. We’re big fans of that label here, how did that relationship come about?
Cal: Yes, I, Voidhanger is a great underground label. I had already released the digital Trilobeth in 2009, then a year later Voidhanger got in contact. This was a cool moment and it really helped launch the project. They knew an Umbah CD might not sell many, but without a care we went ahead anyway in the name of obscure music!
And finally, do you have any recommendations for the readers who are starting to navigate through your music?
Cal: I wouldn’t recommend the newer Umbah to many (Stockhausen note: I immediately got hooked through hearing newer Umbah material. Be cool like me, listeners). The earlier material has a lot of variety, attention to detail, and more hand sculpted programming. Despite the sound being a bit rough, just stick with the production levels for a while because your ear will adjust after a few tracks. These are some of the first cybermetal recordings on a zero budget, made in extremely difficult ways.
Thanks so much for your time! Any last thoughts, words of wisdom, or insane ramblings?
Cal: Umbah is complex, but complex is good, because complex will always get you nearer to owning a shiny U.F.O of your own. Make it glow brightly and never go slow, stay forever on the go, accept no banal tedium or sausage pie mediocrity, just quantum reality, spanning time and space. Several thousand centuries on, its a grand, grand finale…oh shit ALIEN SHIP incoming…that’s it, boosters to standby…coordinates for launching 25 degrees east, elevation 22 degrees North… see you in the other world!
If your brain hasn’t melted out of your ears yet, check out Umbah’s intense discography at Cal’s Bandcamp page, as well as the list of all of his projects! Everything is a name-your-price download, but throw him a few bucks for all of his dedicated work in the name of obscvrity.
(Photo VIA and Cal Scott)