Alban & Cédric Theys – Sirius [Mad Ducks Records 2019]
Should it be implausible?
That a man might supervise
The construction of light
– King Crimson, The ConstruKction of Light
Those lyrics, taken from the title track of the 2000 King Crimson studio album, have always been enthralling. They become appropriate again as I am listening to the album by Alban and Cédric Theys entitled Sirius after the constellation surrounding that star. Is it because this album was influenced by the late 90s King Crimson or some of the works by Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto or is it because of the interlocking guitars in The ConstruKction of Light that inspire some rhythmic patterns in this recording. Or maybe it’s because of the word ‘light’, which is such a pivotal concept behind this work. Sirius is the brightest star in Earth’s sky; and Sirius -the album this time- is brimming with light, a piece of shimmering, milky and shining music. So full of light, that it seems implausible it was created by men, but instead was generated by light itself.
Alban and Cédric Theys put together a collection of six pieces deeply grounded in progressive music, but in that kind of ‘progressive’ that blends ambient, electronic music, ethnic percussions, modal melodies and polyrhythmic pleasures within a shimmering and scintillating framework. The Theys brothers reunited for this work twelve years after they recorded their previous album, Re-De-Generation. French born, they set up their first band, the progressive influenced 4Element, in Texas, before Alban Theys eventually relocated to France. They kept working together remotely with Sirius being no exception. This time the distance was both in the sense of space and time, as the recording process spanned more than two years. Though, the final outcome didn’t suffer from this at all: this is really the first album in which we are blending the organic and electronic parts very well -says Cédric Theys. They don’t feel like just layers, they are actually one sound, one music. We are glad it sounds like we are in the same room, because it’s what we were aiming for.
Currently Based in Austin, Texas, Cédric Theys has dedicated the last few years studying and developing his own style on the instrument Markus Reuter mastered first, the touch guitar (an eight string guitar that is usually played without a pick). After meeting the German musician at a Three of Perfect Pair camp in 2012, he felt he had found what he was looking for and his explorations of deeply rich soundscapes has grown in number and quality during the last few years. Cédric says: it’s when I met Markus Reuter that I focused on Touch guitar and soundscapes. I was frustrated with finding bands and I liked playing live solo. I focused on soundscapes for some years, now I am moving back towards band related things. When, about two years ago, he was listening back to a bunch of studio and live snippets, long and short, he found some might interest his brother and so he sent them over in bulk. Alban Theys is based quite a few timezones away, in Brussels where he recently relocated, and has developed an expertise mixing drumming and electronic, like his solo album iMachination. His drumming style is equally stark and gentle, inventive and dynamic. Working on his brother’s tunes gave him the occasion to go back to playing some real drums. Cédric initially expected his brother to provide just a few drum machine tracks. But his performance turned out to provide a much more structured support, which involved playing acoustic drums and re-editing the tracks -though only two of them were deeply edited. What we are hearning now is basically a remix of the original soundscapes, with two musicians reacting to each other and interplaying, even though they recorded their parts at very distant times and places from one another.
Once the production and recording process was done, it was the moment for the crucial entry of drum tech and sound designer Adrian Benavides. He was pivotal in creating the bright sound of Sirius, bringing the original duo to a sort of 2 + 1 line-up. Not only he did the mix and master, he also added traps, clicks and space sounds -those are key components in Pat Mastelotto’s side projects such as Komara and o.R.k. Cédric Theys describes how Benavides played his role: it became more of a trio than a duo with Adrian involved. He didn’t change any song structure, but added a lot of extra sounds. He took the recording and made it better. He added some sounds here and there, but he didn’t really play them either. He took the material from the source, re-amped it through various effects and then added extra sounds to make it fuller. Cédric Theys, who had already worked with Benavides on past recordings, chose to delegate also the mixing duties to the sound designer. This had an huge impact on the final outcome of the recording. Alban Theys praises him: his contribution made the difference. When you mix your own material, you have an idea, you have a mindset. What Adrian did was to bring something outside of the box, something we didn’t think about. Cédric explains that he and Alban started with a different idea for the overall sound of the album and how Benavides worked on it: ours was more of a jazz sensibility. My mixes were a little bit softer, maybe not as ‘aggressive’. Adrian has more of an electronic background, almost industrial. He took it from that angle, taking our jazz sensibility less into the equation. The experience was really good and there was real chemistry.
This is really the first album in which we are blending the organic and electronic parts very well
– Cédric Theys
Mirzam starts with a simple theme played by two touch guitars. They have a sort of weaving illusion as they bounce from one channel to the other of the stereo mix. I had a specific motif that was very simple to play, because the notes are right next to each other. I used that motif several times in different ways to see where it might go. Alban liked Mirzam right away, but we needed to make it cleaner. So I re-did that motif. It sounds interlocking because the notes are panned left and right, but they also move. That was the basis for the piece. I listened back to other stuff I did on that specific improvisation and I learned the bass line and re-recorded that. I then played it on different octaves, using a pick, fingers or e-bow. It sounds like the parts are different, but they actually come from the same core idea, that’s played in different ways. The notes, going in parallel and reverse motions, prepare for the stark and slow drumming by Alban Theys. After 1 minute and 35 seconds, the pattern is enriched and revised, now becoming a spiraling flow of notes, on which the drummer ingeniously plays with a sort of triplet feel. At around 5 minutes the song’s structure introduces the touch guitar solo section: this part was edited from a twenty minutes improvisation the touch guitarist performed live. Cédric Theys exploits three-semitones intervals that give an eastern feel to the whispering and intense solo, while Alban Theys builds an hypnotic groove with bells and wooden percussive sounds. The drummer provides more insight on how they edited the track to include the solo: we tried to find a way to keep that solo, which was very cool, and at the same time to have a more concise, better structured song than if we had kept the full twenty minutes track. It works as a soundscape, but when you start having drums and percussions, twenty minutes it’s going to be too much. The beginning of the song is really punchy, with big bass, big drums. Cédric and I, we recorded those various bass lines and we found a solution to keep that solo at the end. I came up with low sounds, percussive sounds, while still keeping the gimmick of the song.
Wezen starts with a haunting soundscape built on the higher register, which is then looped and keeps playing underneath the track. Bass lines and percussions create a storming rollercoaster made up of ups and downs. In the middle of the piece Benavides adds his sound design to create a memorable break: the ocean of percussive sounds, sliding and reverberating notes starts colliding as if going in the eye of the hurricane. It’s very easy to feel the interconnectednesss between the musicians by listening on how effortlessly they built up a wall of tension on Wezen. When I asked Alban Theys about how they developed the more improvisatory parts in the arrangement process, he answered with the following words: at the beginning most tracks I started working on, I just had the original live recording. I just played around with percussions trying to improvise on them, then going back to what we recorded. I tried to find pieces that were working well. I eventually edited and built the songs that way. The example of Wezen is pretty good because I did this one in about one or two days: I just played throughout Cédric’s recording. I played around with the percussions and editing the various parts together. Sometimes, when you’re doing music on the computer, you tend to overthink and you can spend hours and hours trying to do one or two minutes. This track was done in just a few hours of recording. I tried not to overthink. I am also trying to find projects where there’s more of this going on. Those are two different ways of creating music. They both have their pros and cons. Having Cédric as the source of the improvisation, I think he was the right person to do this with. Even though I recorded my tracks a few years after he recorded his!
Adhara is a game of mirrors: the pitched percussions dialogue with the soundscape in the upper register and the bass holds the lower register, while drums add a fourth dimension consisting of never ending polyrhythmic tricks. The slower soundscape against the superfast drumming: a meeting of suspension and movement. Having the pitched percussions really helped blending the rhythm and the soundscapes together -says Alban Theys. Playing drums, which is an acoustic instrument, really brought the organic feel back into sound. Pitched percussions often add a second melodic voice to the main motif. I started collecting percussions for a long time now. It started when my parents visited various countries and bought percussions around the world. Especially in past ten years I started getting more into melodic percussion. What was interesting in this project is that I used to work more with computers and samples, but I wanted to get a more natural sound, a bit less machine sounding. It was the first time I mostly recorded at my home. That’s why, when Cédric came up with the idea of this project, I just played around with those percussions and find some melodies and built songs from that.
Some pieces went through heavy editing, while others did not at all: still the album keeps a very clear and distinctive mood throughout. Furud, an unedited soundscape, is built around an apparently simple bass motif up front in the mix, which kind of deceives the listener. Pitched bells create a question and answer with the bass, but it’s the soundscape and the sound design creating a brewing storm that takes your attention at last. Furud is a meeting of ethnic and progressive, organic and digital sounds. When Cédric Theys tweaks the effects as to play an organ-like array of chords at around 7 minutes and 30 seconds, everything feels so atmospheric like you are sitting on a rainy cloud. The closing Aludra again offers a different rendition of the soundscape-rhythm relationship the three musicians explore in Sirius: starting off with a suspended tension, a sort of electronic-driven mood, until the bass theme creates a memorable toe-tapping groove along with drums and percussions. Alternating through multiple polyrhythms percolating drums against chord loops, Aludra plays with stasis and motion in an exemplary way.
Sirius is an exploration of the concept of light, in a very unique way: a bright and shimmering journey, enveloped in vivid arrangements, full of surprising solutions. It is a piece of music that incorporates and elicits that magical feeling we feel when looking up in the sky.
Alban & Cédric Theys
Alban Theys – Drums, percussions, sampling & programming
Cédric Theys – U8 Touch Guitar (bass, soundscapes, solos), effects
Adrian Benavides – Sound design
Produced by Cédric and Alban Theys Mixed and mastered by Adrian Benavides Artwork and album design by Baladur Glum
1. Mirzam (7:38)
2. Muliphein (7:36)
3. Wezen (6:30)
4. Adhara (4:49)
5. Furud (11:06)
6. Aludra (9:53)
Mad Ducks Records MDR19