Monday, July 25, 2011

Curse of the Ivory Tower - Isen Torr Rough Mixes

[25 July 2011: Please note: this entry is under heavy construction. Check back for updates! -P]

Isen Torr is just about as arcane a band name as Cirith Ungol. What the hell does it mean? What language is that? Well, let's just say it translates out as "white tower" in many variations of the Celtic or Gaelic tongues. Not something you'd expect to contribute to any kind of commercial success, nor was it conceived to. We're talkin' underground, man. Cult! Culte! Kult! Kvlt! Cvlt! Isen Torr was/is Solstice guitarist and songwriter Rich Walker's baby. Rich wrote the tunes, chose the musicians he wanted to work with and organized the recording of the first in what was planned to be a triad of vinyl EPs. The title? Mighty and Superior. Want to hear the tunes? Stick around. We'll get there eventually.

Isen Torr - July 2003

I first met Rich Walker in 1999 when he and wife Lucy tagged along with Destiny's End and Sacred Steel on tour for nearly two weeks. Solstice was not playing, but Rich was good mates with singer Gerrit Mutz and Oli Grosshans (former rhythm guitarist, ex-Naevus) from Sacred Steel. He was also, I might add, a metal pen pal of mine for a few years at that time. We were introduced via snail mail by mutual friend and fellow metal and weird fiction nut Rob Preston. Rich and I instantly hit it off in person as much as we did through letters and email. We shared a love for Clark Ashton Smith's elaborate doom-laden fantasy forays and Lovecraft's slimy slitherers from beyond the stars. Hangin' with Rich on tour in Europe in Aug. '99 solidified something in my mind: I would one day work musicially with this bloke!

Solstice logo

Solstice circa 1994

Jens Sonnenberg, Dan DeLucie, Jim Powell, Perry Grayson and Gerrit Mutz
Destiny's End, Sacred Steel & Wardog Euro tour, August 1999

Rich Walker and his trusty '69 Gibson SG

The opportunity presented itself to join forces with Rich in 2003. Solstice was on indefinite hiatus, and he was proceeding with his new band or "project," dubbed Isen Torr. He advertised for one of his staunch supporters on the old Miskatonic Foundation online forum to take up the lead axe slot. I instantly jumped on it and fired off a reply to Rich. There was no hemming and hawing, no time to mull things over. Rich clearly realized I could get the job done with ease. It took a while, but I eventually received a CD-R containing rough demos of the two epic tunes we'd be recording. Rich used a drum machine to accompany his guitar. There was no bass. In typical Solstice-fashion, Rich was tuned down to B. The same tuning used by such metal bands as Anacrusis, Carcass, Entombed and At the Gates. I'd rarely gone lower than C# to play along to some old Sabbath tracks, but I got my '80 B.C. Rico Mockingbird a setup in B, slapping some 12 gauge strings on with a wound G. We'd messed around slightly in B in Artisan, because bassist Mike Bear digs 7-string guitars. I bucked the 7-string approach, though Ana Greco laid down some extreme lows courtesy of a 6-string in B on Artisan's "The Stain of Life." Because my ear wasn't very used to B, I had Rich map out the tunes some. Even more self-taught than I am, Rich resorted to pluging into his chromatic tuner to figure out the root notes of some of the chords. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Rich is a unique player with a keen ear. Sometimes I feel its better to trust one's ears and gut rather than go by the book. It can be limiting to rely too much on theory, and breaking the "rules" can yield interesting results.

Me and the Mockingbird in Korea Town, L.A.
Falcon's house demolishing kegger, March 2004

The two Isen Torr tracks were not a drastic departure from Solstice, although I caught a vintage vibe in the tunes which brought to mind the raw and eccentric NWOBHM nuances of Angel Witch, DiAnno era-Maiden, Bleak House, Aragorn, Midnight Flyer and JJ's Powerhouse. I ripped the two demo tracks onto my computer at home and fixed a tiny spot where the audio clipped and farted out completely. Then I fired up my old 10" Boogie Subway Rocket practice amp and plugged the preamp out into my soundcard input. This was pre-USB interface for me, but I had no time latency issues with the shareware multi-track recording software I used in the early 2000s to lay down a solo for "Mighty and Superior." It was no-frills beyond a dash of reverb applied in mix-down. I uploaded a clip of the solo section to my Falcon website server and emailed the link to Rich so he could download. He was suitably impressed. I've search low and high for the demo with overdubbed solo, but it appears to have been lost. I'm pretty good about backing up files on CD-R and DVD-R, but this one seems to have escaped my grasp.

Studio sessions for Isen Torr's Mighty and Superior EP were slated for July '03 in Lübeck, Germany. It was a busy spring and summer for me. I was rehearsing a few times a week with Artisan, not to mention playing some Arti gigs. Aside from sparse mixing sessions for the Artisan demo/EP, I was also entrenched in getting Falcon off the ground. Falcon, as many already know, is my baby, with plenty of input and assistance from Cirith Ungol mastermind and multi-instrumentalist Greg Lindstrom. In between my main music ventures, I concentrated on practicing "Mighty and Superior" and "The Theomachist" at home. I did my homework so I'd be prepared.

Artisan unfortunately became less of a priority than it was when I formed the band with Mike Bear and Ana Greco in 2000. Hyperspeed technical metal with growled vocals just wasn't as much of a turn-on for me anymore. In a way I was burning out on it. I stuck it out for quite a while, but broke it to Mike, Ana and new drummer Justin Bouchee a couple of months before heading to Germany to record with Isen Torr. Though they were bummed to see me go, the Arti-folks asked me to play a farewell gig in September '03. It was quite a send-off, jamming in front of a nearly-packed house at the Whisky in support of Cathedral, Samael and Strapping Young Lad. But I'm getting ahead of myself, as I often do.

I'd only met one of the other Isen Torr musos previously, but I knew the backgrounds of the rest. Vocalist Tony Taylor and I crossed paths when Tony's band Twisted Tower Dire supported Destiny's End and Iced Earth in June 1999 at Jaxx in Springfield, Virginia. Bassist Oliver "Zülle" Zühlke (rhymes with "hulk," which he resembles) and drummer Martin Zellmer hailed from German power metal band Ritual Steel, which also featured an old metal pen pal of mine, Sascha Maurer, on vocals. Zülle had recently left Ritual Steel, but Rich thought highly enough of him to sign him aboard on four-string duties.

My flight to Germany was tedious, but fairly uneventful. A delay caused an extended layover at London's Heathrow airport. I used the time wisely by snapping up Lemmy's autobiography, White Line Fever, devouring most of it pre-boarding call. Being that this was a post 9/11 flight and I hadn't flown with a guitar in a couple of years, I wasn't aware that locking my guitar case was a bad idea. Being protective and paranoid about my axes, I kept it sealed. It gave TSA free license to mangle the locks and latches for security inspection. When I picked it up at Hamburg one side latch was completely busted and the other barely closed. Only the lockless center latch held tight. I was worried, but I had other things to attend to first.

Rich met up with me at the airport, and we trekked by train to Itzehoe, where we'd be practicing in Ritual Steel's rehearsal bunker. Once at Itzehoe we met up with drummer Martin Zellmer and bassist Zülle at Martin's house. After a few pleasantries, we were off to our first marathon rehearsal session. As we approached the woodsy area where the bunker was located I spied the remains of a WWII plane. By this point I'd been awake for 24+ hours. To top it off, I barely had a bite to eat beyond the potato chips we munched in the bunker, but still managed to make it through our jam like a charm. Rich and I plugged into amps borrowed from Ritual Steel's dual axe team (Cheers Timo & Todde!). There was an Engl head and a Line 6 combo. The Line 6 kept overheating and sounded like crap at high volume, yet we still managed okay. Despite the lack of sleep, I played well. Rich only had to hash out a couple of the complicated guitar parts for me.

At "Z's" pad.

We adjourned to Martin's pad late that night for a quick dinner and to crash. The next day we rehearsed for several hours, nailing both songs on target. There were no toilet facilities at the bunker, so when Rich had to take a dump after dark he was forced to head out to the woods. Luckily Rich wears a bandana! It made for an excellent "shite rag," which he left for an unsuspecting passerby to stumble on in the bushes.

We probably had about 10 hours of Isen Torr rehearsal in all, and not a hell of a lot of sleep or food. It didn't matter to me, though, 'cause I was flyin' on the sheer power and love of metal. It's always a sure-fire power source and adrenaline rush! I felt pretty confident about the tunes, after all. Following a a brief rest, we raced down the autobahn towards Lübeck, where we'd be holing up in an apartment suite and recording at Studio Rosenquarz. Our recording engineers were Cold Embrace members Andreas Libera and Michael Hahn. They were assisted by Bully, the Mastiff mutt.


Accommodation in Lübeck were excellent, although the security door lock downstairs was really stubborn. It took no time to settle into the apartment and walk the several blocks to the studio. Guitar-wise Rich and I were pleased, as Michael Hahn had a rare early '80s Marshall 100 watt head with a transistor preamp and tube power amp section, as well as a matching Marshall 4x12" cab. We didn't have to worry about a subpar amp or one that didn't fit Isen Torr's style. Martin set up the drums up, and our engineers connected me and Rich direct to the mixing board so we could track scratch (or "guide" as they say in Europe) guitars. Michael gave me and Rich a couple of bottles of Beck's Gold. I figured the brewskis would mellow me out, but I was kind of travel weary and muffed some transitions while scratching. No need to worry, as scratch tracks are thrown away.

Sir Richard M Walker at Rosenquarz Tonstudio

Rich tracked his rhythms in quick and painless fashion. I somehow managed to convince him not to use his Boss Metal Zone pedal on the rhythm tracks, a decision we're both very glad about in 2011! I was very adamant that we have a vintage metal-type tone: our axes plugged straight into the Marshall head cranked up to 10, dry and raw as a bone. I followed Rich with my rhythms. While I laid down my two rhythm tracks per song, I paused to ask Rich about whether he thought I was matching up okay with him. He responded by saying that it sounded killer and didn't matter too much if we did slightly different things as long as we were on time and in key. It added a cool dynamic to the recording. We finished two sets of rhythm tracks each. It was quick and relatively painless. The guitars and drums sounded nearly as solid as a Cyclopean monolith slab in a Lovecraft story. Well, nearly! Martin played a shonky fill at the 6:43 mark in "The Theomachist," but it sounded less suspicious when my solo followed his off-beats and we didn't have to resort to any digital editing.

 Bully, Rich and Oliver (no, not Hardy!)

Me, Zülle and Rich

We conceded after the drums and rhythm guitars were complete that it'd be an excellent idea to hit the local metal pub for some liquid libation to the Other Gods of Metal. Sure, celebration was in order, but we probably should've stopped to eat something too. We stayed at the bar until closing time. I bought rounds for my pals, considering Martin and his wife were kind enough  to let us crash at their pad and feed us. We had some comic relief when a haughty guitarist plopped himself down at our table and argued with me and Rich about what constitutes quality gear. I imbibed a bevy of weissbier in half liter steins. I wasn't horizontal or falling over, but I was pleasantly pissed. I wasn't alone, though. A drunk contingent of Isen Torr instrumentalists staggered over the cobblestones back to the apartment. I tried to down as much water as possible before passing out for the night. But it didn't do much good, apparently.

I woke up with the worst hangover of my life. Ugh! The room moved in swift circles like a Tilt-a-Whirl. Somehow I trudged along with Rich, Martin and Zülle down to Rosenquarz. The day was meant to be spent on lead guitar overdubs and Zülle's bass tracks. I had a solo each to track for "Mighty and Superior" and "The Theomachist." But my head was spinning way too much to attempt solos so early in the morning. I told Rich to go ahead with his lead parts and let Zülle track bass. Rich and I debated some. I was quick to agree with him about Americans being lightweights in the drinking department. American beer is, for the most part, watered-down panther piss. At the time I usually stuck to microbrews Stateside. My only retort was that I'd eaten just about fuck-all since my arrival, which didn't help this here Septic Tank Yank.

I slunked back to our suite. It seemed like it took ages for the sticky downstairs lock to work, but I finally made it upstairs. I lay back on my bed in nothing but my sunglasses and knickers, alcohol-laced sweat pouring out of my pores. I didn't get much sleep, but just kept pounding water. At some point while I was dozing the landlady came by the flat to check up on the rowdy band of heavy metal degenerates hiring her flat. She was pretty shocked to see me there in my skivvies and shades. She spoke mangled English at best, but I did assure her all was okay and that we weren't going to wreck her precious flat.

With a pounding head I returned to Rosequarz around 7pm. All of Rich's overdubs were done and Zülle was wrapping up his bass. Fortunately I didn't leave Rich in the lurch due to my celebratory hangover. I plugged into my Boss GE-7 Graphic EQ pedal with the sliders nearly flat and the output boosted slightly to kick some gain in front of the Marshall head. I was still kinda shaky, but I banged out my solos speedily within a few takes. With those done I returned to the flat and slept like a log. Rich cooked up some frozen chips (fries to my fellow Yanks) that night, which I woke up just long enough to gobble down.

I got up before the crack of dawn on Studio Day 3, still slightly hungover more than 24 hours after my weissbier binge! The Germans and the British are on an entirely different plane of drinking to Americans. Not Australians though! Aussies are right up there with the best of 'em!! I wasn't to become an adopted Aussie for another 3-1/2 years, so I made sure to eat from there on out to soak up some of the booze I imbibed.

Andreas and Michael fiddled with a wee bit of digital editing when we got back to Rosequarz. Tony Taylor showed up after a couple of hours to do his vocals. Tony's young son was in tow. He hadn't rehearsed with us, but did a tad of homework. Rich gave him a few pointers, but again things were pretty painless. Rich, like me, is a voracious reader, and he peppered his lyrics with plenty of archaic and complex diction. Tony mispronounced some of Rich's lyrics in "Mighty and Superior," most notably "iniquitous" (which he rendered as "inquititious," not a word in any language I'm familiar with!). Come to think of it, Tony also thought Zülle's nickname was "Zoo-elle." I chortled over it, thinking it sounded like the nickname of Sortilege singer Christian Augustin ("Zouille"). Rich had a field day taking the piss out of Tony on that one. Once all of Tony's vocals were tracked Rich thought it'd be a good idea to have a "battle choir" chant "Fight! Fight! Fight!" in "The Theomachist" The four Isen Torr men stood in the main lounge of the studio in front of a condenser mic. Tony's young son even joined us. Laughs and a blast were had by all! Martin's wife owned a high-quality 35mm film camera and shot the official Isen Torr photos (many of which are reproduced here).

Sortilege, my fave French metallers. L-R:  Didier Dem, Christian "Zouille" Augustin
and Stephane Dumont

"Fight, fight, fight!!"

Tony had gig committments with Twisted Tower Dire. They were slated to play the Metal Bash fest, so he had to get the hell outta Dodge quick and rejoin his TTD brethren. Meanwhile, we'd started mixing with Andreas and Michael. Though we did record on a computer hard disk, there was only a minimum of digital editing. Everybody played their instruments well, and there were only a couple of spots that were slightly cleaned up. We didn't piece things together in the disjointed fashion some modern bands do. Andreas and Michael did an admirable job, but Rich wasn't completely satisfied with their mix. I did take the Rosenquarz master CD-R home with me, but it wasn't meant to be the final mix. Rich resolved to take the multi-track files to his friends in England to remix.

Have you seen this international terrorist? Rich in our apartment at Lübeck

Aside from my huge hangover and Rich's bandana, we enjoyed our share of goofiness. I snapped a photo of freshly showered Rich in terrorist guise, a towel wrapped around his bespectacled head. Another piss-take (pun intended!) was shot in the loo. At one point while we were sitting around the studio lounge Rich and I overheard Michael Hahn exclaim "Dicke titten!" I waggled my eyebrows at Rich. In a great deadpan, Rich asked our host, "Michael... Did you just say that you had a tit-wank last night?" Well... not quite, but he was close. The literal translation is "big breasts."

Taking the piss out of Rich's toilet humor.

To commemorate the completion of Mighty & Superior, our next stop in Lübeck was to witness one of my biggest music heroes, Scott "Wino" Weinrich rockin' out live with his then band, The Hidden Hand. There weren't more than about 25 people at the club, so it was an intimate show. Despite the low attendance, Wino and company destroyed the place. Not one to hide after a performance, Wino was spotted outside the venue after the gig.

Our next stop was the Metal Bash festival, sort of the anti-climax of my voyage. There was a beef between Rich and the festival organizer about giving our big group of people a break on our admission. Our ranks had swelled to include friends Herman and Helge Pahl and Andrea Schmidt. They brought a mini-bus stocked floorboard to ceiling with cans of warm beer. I could barely down any of the sun-heated brew. We eventually entered the festival grounds, minus some cash, and plenty of cold beer and sausages were consumed. Aside from Twisted Tower Dire, we were really unimpressed with most of the festival acts. Pleasantly pissed again, Rich and I watched Goddess of Desire's salacious set. We concurred that they were sort of a second-rate Venom, albeit with a live strip show. In the wee hours of the morning we dozed off briefly in Zülle's car.

Rich and I spent the last day of our German adventure at Herman and Andrea's pad recuperating from the festival. Again, we hardly ate. We walked into town and had a greasy McDonald's breakfast. Rich and I rambled on about our early musical escapades. His as a crust punk and grindcore kiddie and mine as a rail thin punk-ass death metaller. Both wishing we'd scarfed more junk food, Rich and I continued to amuse ourselves over copious amounts of coffee on our German friends' patio. We spent hours trying to outdo one another's ghastly names for "rapcore" bands. My personal fave was "Stool Sample." Rich's would infuriate to many people, but suffice it to say it was "Cyber N_____." I'd say about 99% of Americans don't get the extremely dark British and Aussie sense of humor. Some find it offensive. I laughed my arse off at the band name Rich concocted. At the same time it's not something I'd joke about in front of a couple of musicians I really respect. Namely Iron Man's Al Morris or Revelation/Against Nature bassist Bert Hall. Poor taste, but funny at the time. Rich, you crack me up!

On the way back to La La Land, the Hamburg baggage screening fräulein was puzzled by my Vox wah-wah pedal. She didn't want to let me through to the gate with it.

"You know, like Scorpions? Jimi Hendrix? Wacka wack wacka!"

Finally she understood. I thought better of repeating Michael Hahn's old exclamation, "Dicke titten!"

My flight home could have been better, but I made it in one piece. My already trashed guitar case locks were completely buggered by the time I reached L.A. It's clear my Mockingbird fell out of its case at some point. Aside from a small bump on the back of the neck I didn't think there was any damage. Wrong! Within a couple of months I realized that TSA's negligent spill out of the case included probs with headstock and neck/fingerboard. A bent tuning machine head and a section of the fingerboard near the first fret separating from the neck. Fortunately for me my top-notch luthier pal, Ed Laing, repaired TSA's fuckups perfectly. Knock on (touch if you're Aussie) maple and mahogany, the Mockingbird is still alive and sounds/plays better than ever.

Rich oversaw a remix in the UK, which I liked for the most part. I thought my two solos weren't as loud as they were when Andreas and Michael initial rough mix. For instance, you can barely hear the section of my "Mighty and Superior" solo near the 5:10 mark where I utilized a technique  some shredders refer to as "auto-flange." That is to say: trilling two notes and running my pick hand lightly down the fingerboard to create harmonics. It wasn't the end of the world, but I'd have remedied that if I'd been present and involved more. The project was Rich's baby, so I wasn't bent out of shape about it. Listeners never have to worry about hearing my leadwork in Falcon for a good reason! Although Rich is very quick to point out he's not a lead guitarist (very 'eavy, very 'umble) about his abilities, I personally thought he did an admirable job of playing some tastefully placed melody-infused lead parts, all of which are very discernible as being the handiwork of Mr Walker. Just listen to the intro to "Mighty and Superior" for a shining example!

The original release was on Andrea Schmidt's label, Metal Supremacy, in February 2004. A vinyl 10" EP limited to 333 black vinyl and 333 picture discs. For a grand total of 666 evil slabs of wax. Very few people have heard the rough mix, which is why I'm posting MP3s here. Curious folks will now be able to hear my lead work louder than in the final mix.

Metal Supremacy 10" cover
Metal Supremacy picture disc front
Metal Supremacy picture disc back

Originally Rich envisioned Isen Torr as a band that would release three epic vinyl-only EPs and eventually play a gig at a massive festival in Germany. Things didn't exactly go as planned. He vowed not to release an Isen Torr CD until all three EPs were out on vinyl. Sometimes one's intentions go out the window because the world is not a very stable place. First drummer Martin Zellmer went off the rails. Feel free to ask Rich for the specific gory details. I'm sure he'll delight in telling you the tale. Then Tony Taylor seemed to be following suit. The TTD guys had issues with Tony and wound up finding a new singer. Tony went MIA for a while and resurfaced in Florida. Zülle too went MIA. Rich and I haven't heard from him in several years. At one point Rich thought about bringing former Lord Weird Slough Feg drummer Greg Haa into the fold. Greg went AWOL from Slough Feg months before it was clear that Isen Torr's second EP may not happen in the foreseeable future. I wasn't starved for music by any means. I was more than happy and busy with Falcon.

The late Tony Taylor in between vocal takes with Zülle 

Isen Torr sans "Z"

By the time I relocated to Australia in late 2006 Rich and I were the only two Isen Torr members who weren't MIA. The Curse of the ye olde Ivory Tower was in full effect. Mighty & Superior was reissued in 2008 on CD. Not exactly what Rich intended. We musicians were meant to be paid in copies for the reissue, both CD and vinyl from the American label releasing it. I received my CDs from Mr. Label Guy. That sort of happened almost semi-professionally. However, Mr. Record Label wouldn't send them to Australia, instead he shipped to my parents in the States. I should've been worried by that arrangement. Was it asking too much to have the discs sent sans jewel-cases Down Unda? Not really! After all, no cash was changing hands. Next up Mr. Record Label informed me he was "sold out" of the vinyl and couldn't send me, a band member, copies until a second pressing was made at some undetermined future date. Now, I don't know about you, but I think that is just the sort of bad business typified by disreputable labels. I was promised vinyl shortly, but shortly stretched into 1-1/2 years. I had to publicly call Mr. Record Label out on Rich's Miskatonic Foundation Forum about his bad biz practices before I ever received any of those Big Ten-Inch Records. That wasn't Rich's fault. And it's a genuine shame, because Andrea Schmidt did a tremendous and above-board job on the Metal Supremacy first pressing.

Isen Torr - Mighty and Superior CD cover (2009)

The Curse struck again in 2009. We received news that Tony Taylor died in a motorcycle accident. Whether Isen Torr will record again is a question I can't presently answer. Rich once mentioned the possibility of me tracking my half of the guitars on my home turf in Sydney if a second EP materializes. I'm cool with that. The challenges which Rich faces go way beyond the guitars, though. We now lack a bassist, drummer and vocalist.

Right click and "save as" to download the MP3s below.

1. "The Theomachist"
2. "Mighty and Superior"