Music without lyrics

24 Mar 2010

Throughout music history, there are huge swathes of music that don’t have a vocal, lyrical element. Most orchestral music is the first obvious example, and a hell of a lot of jazz is instrumental too. Even in (how may I define this broadly enough?) contemporary Western popular music, there are genres that have lent themselves to non-lyrical music, for example prog rock and ambient music.

But despite all of that, it’s still a surprise when a new band turns up playing just instrumental music, like Gallops did the other day with their debut EP. Based in north Wales, these guys use synths, guitars, live drums and sequencers and have come up with an infectious, catchy, full-on yet feel-good sound. Don’t ask me to put it in a genre – I can’t. Others have labelled them “bleepy prog” and “digital math-rockers”. Where do people get these genres from?!

gallopsThe band has been championed by Bethan Elfyn on Radio 1, and NME rated them in the top 5 of bands at In The City at the end of last year. So, musically, we salute them.

Technically, though, it throws up some interesting questions and challenges.
We are all so used to the lead vocal being the main focus of a song, that the minute it’s no longer there, it can feel a touch disconcerting. On the other hand you can hear a lot more detail in an instrumental tune than a vocal-led song. I’m always amazed when I listen to a vocal mix and then listen to the instrumental mix of the same song, how much more detail I can hear in the mix without the vocal there to take centre stage.

The Gallops EP was produced by Llion Robertson (a talented young producer on the Cardiff music scene) and his approach was this: for every section of each song, pick the line (be it guitar or synth) that is most like a lead line, and then bring that out as the most prominent element in the mix. The way an orchestra achieves this is that the instrument or section that’s playing the melody play out, and the rest of the orchestra know they’re accompanying and play down accordingly. What Llion’s done is achieve the same thing with mix automation.

Mastering the project was fun too – all that instrumental detail being more prominent meant I had to be quite careful when EQing and compressing, on the other hand it did open up opportunities to get creative and try out novel approaches.

The end result is good – check it out!