Song Biography – To The Honorable Charles W. Yancy, From Your Admirers

The Challenge and How/Why I Picked What I Did

The challenge this round:

Music To My Fears – Write a scary song, basically explore the horror genre in music format. (2 minute minimum length)

For once, I did not use the first non-stupid idea I had.  That idea was to write a song from the perspective of someone with locked in syndrome, but after a discussion with Graham Porter I found that 1.) the idea wasn’t as unexpected as I thought and 2.) Oh yeah, Metallica has a really good song from the perspective of someone suffering very similar effects (though from war injuries rather than natural medical causes) to locked in syndrome.  And, having remembered that, I was probably going to compare any song I tried to write to that song, which would lead to a Continuous Second Guess situation.

On top of that, there was a clarification from the judges on topics that indicated to me they were probably looking for supernatural horror (which… could have just included that word in the challenge… but having been a judge I know how difficult it is to get consensus on wording prior to the challenge date, so I’ll leave that alone) rather than phobias or other more mundane fears.

Okay, fair enough.

The first immediate problem for me with the supernatural horror genre is I don’t necessarily like it.  I have written at least three songs with a supernatural angle and a few about “mundane” fears but supernatural horror doesn’t scare me much because supernatural things don’t exist, so although I like fantasy I’m not particularly frightened by it.  (You can probably also blame Joss Whedon and Jim Butcher for this; Buffy, Angel, and Harry Dresden have all demonstrated to me that evening in a “supernatural horror” setting, the scariest things are the ones with relatable human connections.)

The other problem is that I’ve had some issues in the past with alternately wildly between “painfully on the nose” and “cryptic as all hell”, per judge evaluation. A topic like this increases that risk by a lot, because as (most) any  horror director will tell you, the monsters are typically more scary when you can’t see them. On the other hand, the “horror” needs to be communicated clearly so as to not run into the dreaded “Only Grazes The Challenge” Spintunes state.

So I started with something rooted in reality: a man who has caused the death of many innocents.  He could be a psychopath who works more intimately with his victims (think Dexter), or it could be a man who wears a suit to work every day and can end lives by signing or not signing his name on a contract (lot of territory there).  For the purposes of the song it doesn’t matter which; all that is really important is that this is a person who can and does kill dispassionately.

Then I added in the supernatural: the killer starts receiving messages (phone calls, emails, letters, whatever) from unknown sources who never identify themselves, but imply that they know where his literal and metaphorical skeletons are buried.  The implication being: these messages are somehow coming from the killers victims.  The song is a mostly a transcription of those communications, although it isn’t just idle threats because that would be boring.

Lyrics

So let’s explain these weird and confusing lyrics, shall we?

For the rest “POV” just means the main character, “killer” refers to Mr. Yancy.

Scrape me out across the gravel
My body offered to the fog
Black out the road untravelled
And the drivers you ran off

The first two lines might me literal or figurative (depending on whether this is the serial killer or the corporate/government one), but the idea is that the POV character was tortured and then discarded.  The second two lines reference the killer’s efforts to conceal his activities and his victims.

Watch your towers tumble
We won’t sleep in secrecy
You can’t outrun these shadows
So easily

This is the first threat, as the POV joins with the other victims (do ghosts have craigslist?) – we are dead but not gone; we are coming for you.

If you feel a breath on your neck
Know what your own is worth
Shadows stirring over your shoulder
Sending the seekers forth

First two lines — Implication: Your breath isn’t worth much, because we’re going to kill you.

Second two lines — more creeping doom.

If every step you take feels like
Growing steadily more lost
Consider where you’re keeping your secrets
And if you ever really paid what they cost

The killer has managed to escape the notice of the living but cannot escape the wrath of the dead.  It is impossible to run or hide from them and justice and/or vengeance will be served (the debt referenced in the fourth line).

You’re hiding out far from the crime
And the flames
Cloak yourself in lack of light
But more than two can play that game…

Honestly, this means almost the same thing as the last four lines.  I try not to do this; I worry it can get to the point of having a verse that is something like “I am ill at ease, I am anxious, I am frightened, I am scared”, but I guess as long as my verses are failing to communicate intent I haven’t fallen into this trap.  But in short, the POV knows the killer’s crimes and has literally nothing else to do but repay them.

So park outside the church
And contemplate the stars
Every voice in the choir knows
Exactly what you are…

There will be no escape, no redepmtion, and no forgiveness for the killer’s crimes.  He might be able to trick people into believe that he isn’t a monster, but his victims know better.

And we’re RIGHT BEHIND YOU.

Ohshit.

If you can’t stand the winter, freezing nights alone
You shouldn’t make it home….

The killer has made his bed and now the POV is going to suffocate him with a pillow (well, you know.  Roughly.)

Sing — raise your voices
And tear apart the sky
Let the stars rain down

Sing out the choices
That let rivers all run dry
Our song the only sound

Bring out the dead;
The Forgotten left to lie
SING THEIR NAMES LOUD

After writing the “Every voice in the choir” line a few stanzas ago I got the mental image of the victims sort of moving together in a herd and speaking with one voice like a choir.  In the bridge (the only part of the song that isn’t addressed to the killer) they express their resolve to one another (uh, basically).

1st stanza :  Bring the killer’s world down around his ears through intimidation and fear

2nd stanza : Bring light to his crimes (the “rivers run dry” line is maybe the most obscure of the song, unless we stretch the “corporate” idea all the way to environmental damage.  It basically just means denying stealing futures away from people)

3rd stanza :  Basically Morpheus’ speech from The Matrix Reloaded, except, you know…. ghosts.

Now you can’t tell cutting corners
From slashing throats
And you’ve got your widespread respect
And an army of sleepless ghosts
And if the truth gets buried
Floods are carrying out grave dirt
So run as fast and far as you like;
You taught us all how to hurt

First two lines – Killing is as easy as breathing for the aptly named “killer”

Second two lines – This was kind of where I was hoping, if the overall concept hadn’t landed yet, it would be reasonably clear (“army of sleepless ghosts” being the POV and other victims)

Third two lines – The killer has avoided consequences this long but time/circumstance will end the reprieve soon enough

Last lines – you made us (the victims) what we are and you are only reaping what you sow

Music

(just some random notes technical notes here really, feel free to skip it if you don’t care)

Coincidentally, there was a discussion on the Spintunes forums about reusing old riffs/chord progressions/etc. this week.  I somewhat sheepishly admitted I’ve used music but never lyrics.

The chord progression that kicks in 1:05 and the “chorus” (or probably more accurate “B” section) around 2:15 have been rattling around in my head for about *checks email history* four and a half years.  It was originally going to be part of a psuedo-breakup song and was likely going to feature long melancholic guitar solos.  Coincidentally the draft title was “An Exorcism” but it wasn’t really about supernatural horror, unless my complete inability to read social queues qualifies.

I never could quite figure out lyrics, so it percolated since then; it also felt like it needed another section that I couldn’t figure out an angle on.  In contrast, the intro/bridge section mostly wrote itself once I actually had the rest of the concept in place.  So anyway, good to get this one off my chest.

MC Ohm-I mentioned this was the “put spooky reverb on everything” round.  That is definitely the case for this song, although I’m more likely than not to use ambient reverbs anyway, regardless of “spooky” challenge.  The most obvious use was in the intro where I was trying to lay down a soundscape for the Ebow/prelude type verses.

The mighty Ebow appears once again in the intro with the vaguely spooky melody line that emerges from the ambient soundscapey thing.  I maybe should have used the Ebow some more (particularly to fill up some of the quieter parts of the song) but it is harder than you might expect to make it work and I ran out of time.

The very high register counter melodies during the B section are a guitar, but that astute Graham Porter noticed during the listening party it seemed out of normal guitar range.  He is right; it was an octave up pitch effect thanks to a plugin version of the Digitech Whammy.

There is also some rotary speaker going on on the rhythm guitar because I like rotary speakers and they make everything feel slightly off balance.

The heavily distorted parts have just a touch of tremolo.  You can’t really hear it but I have found when mixing distorted parts with cleaner parts this helps avoid a scenario where the distortion dominates too much.

Where’d I Go Wrong?

So now we come to the results.  I came in third from last, which is my lowest single round Spintunes ranking ever.  I think I might now be the only person who has been in every Spintunes as a non-shadow entrant (Edric Haleen was with me until he went and got marriedm that just goes to show, getting married ruins EVERYTHING [this is a joke, congratulations Edric!], BYD has been in every Spintunes but missed the first round deadline a couple of times, I believe), so that is pretty impressive in one (statistical) sense.

I’m willing to say the song has decent-to-good production, reasonably interesting music, probably one of my better vocal performances, GD-standard guitar and competent bass/drum sequencing, so what went wrong?

1. The song isn’t all that scary.

Honestly, I’m just not great at being scary.  I’m about as intimidating as a teddy bear with too much stuffing and that translates over to my music (although I can definitely channel anger when the mood suits me, and fear reasonably well.. actually scaring somebody?  Nah).  I might have been better off singing from victim POV instead (or rather, not a victim with near omnipotence and immunity to conventional weaponry) and trying to inspire fear via empathy.  But, the concept I came up with just didn’t work with that.

Charles W. Yancy was a red herring.

A few people have asked, so to make it clear, Charles W. Yancy is/is based on nobody in particular, I just like the title’s phrasing (especially the “To The Honorable” part) as a sort of sneering salutation that would appear in the threatening communications.   It needed a name, so I picked out. Side note:  Sneering Salutations should be a punk rock record. Somebody make that.

The title is also a sort of down low reference to one of my favorite songs of all time, which also features a long title and a main character (also based on no one in particular) with an impressive-sounding name.

3. The song is a little… but really ONLY a little… too slow.

I’m not at my DAW at the moment but I think the tempo was 83 BPM.  This made the overall length just over 5:20, which you can probably get away with in round 2 when there are eliminations if it’s a really good song.

In a post-elimination world, I think the track length is just too long to ensure that everybody listened to the whole thing all the way through and made all the necessary connections between the lyrics, etc.  This is probably a “multi-listen” track, one playthrough is likely not going to be sufficient to really pick up everything, especially without the plot summary.

I try to avoid shortening a song if I haven’t said all I intend to, but one other way to handle that is to increase tempo.  Maybe 87-90 would have been better.

Another track shortener I sometimes use is ishortening or *sniff!* cutting instrumentals. Other than the ambient sound at the beginning I didn’t really have any instrumentals to snip, or they were already pretty short.  I decided the ambience was too important to the mood setting to cut, but again a tempo increase would have at least made it shorter.

Finally I guess I could have removed some lyrics but even though some might be redundant they are also reinforcing.  I don’t know what I would take out.

4. Too much dynamics???

I tried to live up to the “Dynamics” part of my name and do some experimenting with creating tense, musical periods of silence or near-silence, as well as bringing in/dropping out instruments to fit the current “mood” of the song, but I’m afraid it just came off as boring, confusing, or obfuscating for too many listeners.

5. Lyrics didn’t gel with everyone

The combination of all the prior 4 points meant that the lyrics were likely obscured/missed/confusing/not heard enough times.  They definitely are not straightforward , and were meant to convey more mood and emotion rather than a beginning/middle/end story. I also struggle somewhat with exactly how loud to make vocals and how to EQ them — it’s really hard to tell if lyrics are intelligible to the average person when you already know what they are.

What did the judges think?

I did judging responses before; some of them seemed to like it.  Might as well give it another try.

Before I get started I want to say upfront: I’ve been a judge before.  I’m very well acquainted with the feeling of maybe not having much to say about a song and that that doesn’t even mean it wasn’t a bad song.  Also familiar with ranking a song I actually liked very low because of the maddeningly arbirtary shuffling one has to do since there does have to be a last place.  I don’t take reviews personally (at least, I didn’t have to take any of the ones I got this time personally), so if you get the impression I am mad at you or that my feelings are hurt or whatever, let me clarify up front that no, I am not, and no, they are not. 😉

Okay, that probably-too-long disclaimer out of the way:

Jana Pochop explained:

This was confusing…I never really grasped the plot.  Who is Charles?  Who is “we?”  What did he do to you?  There’s a lot of poetic language here but I don’t think it serves to tell the story or make the song particularly about fear.  Great vocals.

I feared this was going to be an issue and I planned on/totally should have written a song bio last week.  But between sick days and a car breakdown, it just didn’t happen.  See the “Lyrics” section for the plot and point 2 under “Where Did I go Wrong?” for more info about Charles.  I am pleased at least one person liked my vocals. 🙂

MC Ohm-I opined:

Another track that I’d expect to hear on Guitar Hero. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this track. It’s done well but I’m not sure anything about it sticks out. But yeah…Guitar Hero, for sure.

I’m going to admit that I… don’t know what that means.  I guess we’re just both sort of baffled right now?  But Guitar Hero has a lot of good songs on it so I will take that as a compliment.  Thank you.

Rusty Cage mused:

This song is definitely spooky sounding.  It’s slow,  it’s atmospheric, and relatively minor sounding, but the lyrics lack that horror theme.  Perhaps the concept is there, but they don’t deliver enough to create the sense that this is horror.  The vocal performance and music did however.

Glad the atmosphere and performance worked for you!  I agree that the song isn’t particularly scary (see also: teddy bear with too much stuffing).

The Dreamstalks postulated:

Wow. Beautiful song with gorgeous vocals. Love the beats. We would have loved to see a little more horror in the tune and vocals. We wanted to be scared a little. Granted, this is an amazing song and deep and passionate. There are traces of “scary” in there but we didn’t feel it within your vocals.

Aw, man, but Rusty just said my vocal performance was scary!  (This is a situation that is going to happen AT LEAST once per round, no worries.) I will totally accept “deep/passionate/amazing song” as a critique though.  More seriously see point 1 under “Where Did I Go Wrong?”, but yes, I agree.

Matthew Jordan riffed:

First and foremost, great lyrics on this one. A very good example of how an alt-rock band could write a “horror” genre song. Love the interplay of your different guitar parts. Something a little bit 90’s about this tune, which is not a bad thing – that was a great decade for music!

Yay, at least one judge liked the lyrics!  That eases my troubled mind because I thought they were pretty good (if vague).  It’s like I have no idea if my songs are any good at all or not (spoiler alert: I don’t)!

“90’s” is how most folk describe the Governing Dynamics “sound”, it doesn’t seem like I can get away from it even when I’m trying so I’ve just started to lean in to it.  Glad you enjoyed the song! (also your check for highest ranking is in the mail, don’t spend it all in one place [$3.27, I’m having a lean month]).

Marian Call analyzed: 

Nice lush but clear rock instrumentation, interesting instrument entrances & exits, but it takes a really long time to unfold and ramp up.  Drums don’t kick in until 1:15, and they die out again, so it feels like we really get started around 1:50.  It’s nice and atmospheric, creating a mood, but it’s also hard to follow or focus on the words.  That can be OK — it lines in its own world and feels pretty happy there, but the world i lives in a little background texture.  Good for in a TV episode or film, with action over it.  I don’t think I’m clean on what it’s about though, lyrically.  Again, that’s not always the most important part of a song.

First of all, glad schedules finally aligned so you could guest judge.  I know that the rest of the competitors also appreciate the in depth analysis.

It does have some pacing issues (see… um.. points 2 through 5 under Where Did I Go Wrong?).

I was indeed going for atmospheric and soundtracky (one of my beta listeners actually asked for the song with the vocals muted, which told me I might have pulled that off a little too well; seems to be the case).  I kind of wrote a movie to go with the song in my head while I was writing it; unfortunate that it doesn’t exist.

I feel like you really understood what I was after, if not my lyrics (see top section for way too much explanation on those) and assume the low ranking was mostly challenge miss factor.

Walt Ribeiro ranked the songs but does not have reviews posted; I will respond when he does.

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1 comment so far

  1. Dave Leigh on

    “…supernatural horror doesn’t scare me much because supernatural things don’t exist, so although I like fantasy I’m not particularly frightened by it. ”

    AMEN AND HALLELUJAH


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