The Furious Light
I’m standing on the brink
I’m drowning in the drink
I’m here to dance and sing
I’m here to tear down everything
I’m here to heed the call
To leave my writing up on the wall
I've lost my pride and I’ve come to fall
At the feet of rock and roll
It’s the voice calling from within
Like claws underneath the skin
Like the pain of a secret sin
Telling me, “You’ve got only your life to give”
So let’s hold a tavern wake
Raise your glass now, for goodness sake
Here’s to the story, always the same
Here’s to the song that we all sing
Here’s to the saints in the midnight choir
To the cowards and the liars
We’re all drawn to the dark beyond the fire
Wanna rebel against everything
But the truth is, I’m afraid.
There’ll be blood, and there’ll be flames
Please, lord, give me the strength
It doesn’t matter what I believe
The hound of heaven is hunting me
I guess I’m The Saint of Blasphemy
And this is my Gethsemane
I‘ll burn down hell to make it happen
Sort the ruins out in song
Beat back the long darkness before it falls
There ain’t no use turning back
So tear the sails down from the mast
Rip the future from the past
Let the first become the last
While every night and every morn
More to misery are born
Every morning and every night
We’re dancing in the furious light
The title track for the album was one of the last I set out to write. At this point, I had a good idea of what the pallet of the record would be, and I knew I wanted a certain sort of opening song.
I believe the words “Furious Light” were inspired by something in Moby Dick, which I was reading/listening to at the time, but I haven't been able to relocate the specific passage since.
At this stage, I was favoring the “Notes” app in my iPhone over my pocket moleskine notebooks. Those of you familiar with this feature know the title of a given “Note” is the first line of its text. The first line in the file containing many possible lyric phrases from this time was “Furious Light.” I would see it every time I wanted to add something to my growing list of ideas, and it lodged in my brain something fierce.
It was a difficult song to realize, and I have a lot of media documenting its writing—one of the earliest being this entry into my handwritten recording journal:
3/19/14 - 11:35pm
Last Monday, on my extra day off, I managed to organize all of the song titles I’ve laying around into cards on a bulletin board.
Since then, I’ve been thinking a little extra about the themes and scope of this album.
Ideally, it would be at least 10 songs—all helmed by [my brother] Brian in the near future. I think, if nothing else, I’ll release whatever number of songs he manages to finish—to honor the the work he’s done and to document this moment in time. It’s a shame I’ve already confused matters so much as to what’s an EP in my catalog—because of the singles and such. In order they were written, recorded, or conceived, here are the contenders:
Looking up above, that’s 12 songs—with 3 and 1/2 more to write. If those are the tunes, I think it will be a diverse but rich album.
Notice the “untitled rebellious tune” note off to the left. That’s what turned out to be “The Furious Light.”
In the early spring, I had begun a document in the “Notability” app which allows you to use your iPad to capture ideas. Evidently, I was big on “apps” at the time.
One of the ways you can use Notability is to write using a stylus. You can change the size and color of the virtual pen and have digital notes in your own handwriting. It can be fun. It’s even what I ultimately used to capture my handwriting for the “French New Year” lyric video.
Anyhow, at some point in February, 2014 I must have written down a chord progression because in this first video below, you can see I want to associate a drum beat with a file called “Furious Light (2-22 chord progression).”
I remember the beat came to me during a long walk in the “Gopher Tunnels” of The University of Minnesota’s West Bank. These are a series of tunnels connecting the buildings underground so students, faculty and staff can stay indoors in the colder months of the year (i.e. most months in Minnesota from November - May).
Once I hit the elevator, I started making the drum-noises with my mouth, pausing in the hallway until I could get to my desk and hit “record” on my iPhone video recorder:
When I got home that evening, I got out my guitar and had a go at combining the beat with a few more chords and some vocal melody:
Now that I had a musical framework within which to play, I set about getting serious with the lyrics. This took a while…
I got a response to the above tweet from @aaronshekey, the co-founder and designer of a songwriting app called “Hum.” Over Twitter, he talked me into downloading said app:
However, I was soon back to paper—and a lot of it:
I include several recordings here, done in quick succession, not because I’m particularly proud of them, but because I find it interesting to hear the tweaks that occur—after many hours that day, and many more in the weeks/months before—in just over three hours:
The phrase “My redemption is rock ’n’ roll” is made (to fall) “at the feet of rock ’n’ roll ” by the next take (two hours later). That go ‘round (the 4:50pm recording) is most notable for trying out lower “whoas” and replacing them with the more congruent vowel sound pairings of “yeahs” to go with the "Gethsemane" verse.
By 5:42pm, I’d pretty much sorted out lyrics and vocal approaches—though I was still reaching a little too far outside my range for some of the “whoas.”
Come 6:00pm, the song was as it would be, though I was still trying to hang on to the lines “I’ll testify to the sky / We were born to make it right / let rock ’n’ roll save our souls tonight.”
I suppose now’s as good a time as any to discuss the content of the song. I figure, if you're still reading, you've gotta be at least a little interested to know.
Years prior, while I was still writing the Light The Dark record, I was inspired re-watching Martin Scorsese’s film version of Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial 1953 novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. So very much can be said about these works; but, in this already super-long blog post, I’ll just say I was struck by both the startlingly vulnerable and human portrait of Jesus and his journey from haunted carpenter to crucified messiah.
I was also very taken with a certain section of Jesus’s journey wherein he turns from “love” to “the axe.” In this portion of Paul Schrader’s script, Jesus is especially angry and passionate. He leads his disciples (among them Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barry Miller, Victor Argo, John Lurie and Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul) through the desert as Peter Gabriel’s revolutionary score soars… It’s pretty fuckin' great.
There are elements of this spirit, Jesus the Revolutionary, the “Rock Star,” at work in “French New Year” as well.
More and more, I’ve realized music has become as close to religion as I have in my life, and I related to the Jesus of this film who is called to something he both fears and desires.
There’s some Herman Melville and William Blake in the song as well; but as I type this, I’m realizing how unbearably pretentious this all sounds.
So… Let’s switch gears. Here's an email exchange with my brother from around this time:
From: David Ullman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sun, May 25, 2014 at 11:50 PM
Subject: First "Furious Light" draft
To: Brian Ullman <email@example.com>
I’ve been stuck on this one for a good while. It reminds me of “Graveyard” in that way, so I’m hoping sharing it with you will yield similarly inspired results.
There’s more I like about the song than dislike, but it still feels awkward and unfinished.
The attached iPhone Voice-Memo recording here was after 8 hours of working on it today—just before it started getting worse instead of better. There's even some key moments I don't hit very well, but you get the idea.
I’d be curious to hear what bits you respond best to, what you think could go or change, and what might be missing.
The main thing I know I want is it to be effin’ rockin! You can hear the main drum part I have in mind creep in at about 0:35 of the also attached early chord sketch, and (for sonic reference) I dig the raw sound of the kit on this NIN track - http://youtu.be/BTfpOsPy3VM.
I think the recent Glen Hughes stuff could serve as good touchstones as well. I want it to be a dirty, rebellious (but smart) rock song. Seems to me, that's right up your alley!
If you think of anything like, “hey, perhaps you could go to X chord here,” or, “this might be a good chorus candidate,” or even, “this one line is pretty cheesy,” let me know.
Alrighty, then… Thanks as always. -D.
Date: Tue, May 27, 2014 at 2:47 PM
Subject: Re: First "Furious Light" draft
yo, i've had a chance to listen to this a few times now and i dont think you "need" to change anything about it. it needs some harmonies, bass, drums, a band. but man it's pretty catchy and cool! it actually reminds me of "dear mr. fantasy" with the words. and i only know of that song by watching steve winwood play it and thought, damn that's a cool song. basically because of it's melody and lyrics. simple guitar. but anyway, i really like it! i think the ending could be extended after saying "rock n roll can save our souls tonight" i think it should jam out a bit after that. but anyway, good shit man. i guess i could start working on some drums ideas for this, then it's downhill from there. awesome, well thanks for sharing. alright, well back to it. til the future.
From: David Ullman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Tue, May 27, 2014 at 8:47 PM
Subject: Re: First "Furious Light" draft
To: Brian Ullman <Broken2839@aol.com>
Thanks, brothaman! I listened a couple more times today; and, with your encouragement, it's growing on me. I tweaked the lyrics a little and attached them here with the general chord changes.
I also attached the NIN track I'd previously thought could be a cool beat-bed. It's a B-side to "March of The Pigs" called "A Violent Fluid." I didn't actually think of it until I'd already come up with the mouth-noise drum idea you can hear in the previous post. I sped it up a little to fit the tempo of my song, and it actually works. I think if you take this general tempo/beat pattern and the kit sound of the other NIN reference track... Throw in rapid-fire snare repeats (quarter--or is it eighth--notes/beats?) at the end of the measures on the verses... And it'll be exactly what I've been hearing in my head.
Alright... Dinner time here. Till the future...
I think there must have been a reference-too-many here, because Brian called me up and asked, “can you just do some mouth-noises for the drums?”
Of course, I said, “no problem,” as mouth-drums are the only drum I can “play”:
PRODUCER'S NOTE: This was a song introduced to me via live performance video with some specific drum guides attached to Nine Inch Nails references. I was drawn to the lyrics and the message. I thought “this is a perfect David Ullman song.” After some demos, Dave was calling for some voicings with the chorus, and so came the slide guitar. I had been listening to a lot of California Breed and was certainly compelled by their gritty sound and live-style tracking.
Around this time, I was working a lot on rehearsing for some live gigs, and the writing/recording took a backseat… until July 13th:
… “Rock ’n’ roll,” indeed. I remember that day very fondly. It was great fun recording with the Green Bullet mic, running through the delay pedal.
I sent all of the tracks to Brian to work with, and here’s what he sent back for “Furious Light” :
It was really starting to feel like a song now. A couple of months later, I flew to Ohio to record a round of final vocals with Brian. Here’s what I wrote about singing “The Furious Light”:
9/29/14, 5:40pm @ The British Pub, near Gate B - Cleveland Airport
We also saved the clean (non-green bullet) verse vocals of “Furious Light” for the early part of the day because after that we planned to move on to the “hard stuff” of “How The Story Ends” and “Almost There.” By that time, any nuance in my vocals would be gone—both by virtue of the Green Bullet’s pickup and my sure-to-be-shredded vocal chords.
Brian and I were both pretty certain we wanted the Green Bullet verses for “Furious Light,” so I sang the clean takes to the scratch acoustic track from Northfield, Brian’s harmonies and the long, strong notes I belted out the day before. This inspired Brian about the acoustic versions of the songs.
He’d shown me the “drop-D” way he played both “Furious Light” and “French New Year,” on Saturday, and I suggested the acoustic versions of those songs could be just him and me doing our respective guitar progressions—me in standard tuning, and him in Drop D. We both got pretty jazzed about that prospect.
Here’s what eventually came of this approach for “The Furious Light” :
The last ingredient was one Brian and I couldn’t have anticipated. We’d both hoped longtime collaborator Brian Yost would play drums on a couple of track for which the programmed percussion wasn’t cutting it, but neither of us would have ever guessed he’d fly out to Northfield Minnesota from Brooklyn, New York to record drums for the entire album!
This game-changing occurrence is covered elsewhere in this blog, but I do want to say… With “Graveyard” coming in at a close second, “The Furious Light’ is the song on which I treasure Yost’s drumming the most.
The drum beat I had heard in my head many months before was realized in such a satisfying way by him in my basement. Even my dog, Maggie, was in awe: