Saturday, 22 February 2014

Beneath Utopia.....(Music Career part 3)

In March and April 1996, when I really should have been swotting up for my A levels, I finally felt happy enough with my musical "skills" to branch out into playing metal.  The first song that I wrote was called 'The Last to Die' - it was about war, it sounded like Bolt Thrower and I put on my best Karl Willetts voice complete with Brummie accent, noticing any pattern yet?  After deciding on the suitably metal name of Oakenshield, another 5 songs were recorded with a similar sound and listening to them today I can safely say that, while being a little generic, they stand the test of time pretty well.  'Something You Can't Have', which had the same general rhythm as Carcass' 'Corporal Jigsore Quandary', is still a particular favourite.  My cover art, based on the Hero Quest board game, maybe not so good.

It only took until August and September of the same year to follow those songs up with a full album, 'Something to Fear'.  By then I was incorporating influences from my other favourite bands of the moment, such as Fear Factory, Paradise Lost and mid-90s Napalm Death, but still the over-riding influence was Bolt Thrower.  I'm actually less keen on this album I think, although there are still some decent songs.  Maybe quality control was an issue.

About a year after that I decided to send some of my songs to Metal Hammer for review in the Demos section....a name change was required.  During 1997 I recorded a host of metal songs in different styles under different names, two songs each, to experiment basically.  I had Post Mortem who sounded like My Dying Bride, Whirlwind (Megadeth), Carnage (grindcore), Download (Korn) and Beneath Utopia (Cradle of Filth).  Now that last one is a good name I thought, what would be lurking underneath the perfect world?  Musically speaking, exactly the kind of stuff that I was playing.  None of the other band names went any further (I would find out later that some of them were already bands), but Beneath Utopia was now the new, improved name of Oakenshield.

So, I sent my demo of Beneath Utopia, and also my pop punk band Spraypaint, to Metal Hammer and to my surprise they actually reviewed both of them!  Both got 4/10 in the October 1997 issue, which was probably fair in retrospect, but there were some encouraging comments in the reviews.  I got a bit of interest, with a feature in a zine called Zeitgeist and a couple of songs (one from each band) played on French radio!  Maybe fame was around the corner?

It wasn't obviously, but I pressed on regardless.  From July 1998 through to May 1999 (my final year at university) I recorded the songs that would become 'Underdog'.  They were definitely the best songs I had recorded so far and I was keen to push them out as far as they could go.  The sound still wasn't amazing, which hindered things in comparison to other bands, but it was decent enough.  The next national exposure was through a new section in Kerrang! for unsigned bands called Scumscene, I think I was in either the first or second edition of that in the March 4 2000 issue.  I have the magazine buried somewhere but rather than spend hours digging it out I have a copy of what was written:

BENEATH UTOPIA are a one-man operation, fronted and indeed, backed and middled by Ian Lipthorne.  He's looking to appear on any fresh talent compilation albums anyone might be planning, and he describes his sonics as: "The brutality of Napalm Death wrapped up in 'Draconian Times'-era Paradise Lost."  If you bung Ian a blank tape plus £1 p&p, you'll receive an hour's worth of Paradise..., which strangely includes a metal version of A-ha's 'The Sun Only Shines On TV'.  

They could at least have got my name right, it's not difficult.  In the September 2 2000 issue of Kerrang! I managed to get featured again, as Scumscene was coming to the end of its stint in the magazine.

ONE-MAN project BENEATH UTOPIA is currently recording new material, which, threatens main-and-only-man Ian Lipthorpe, "sounds like the aural equivalent of being battered with a blunt and a sharp instrument at the same time".  Ouch!  Ouch!  For Beneath Utopia's previous demo - which Ian likens to the further shell-like bruising of Napalm Death meets Paradise Lost - why not send a blank tape and an SAE to the following address:

As you can imagine this was good news for me, getting your name in a national magazine once would have been good, 3 times was awesome.  The Scumscene features got me in touch with Dan, the guitarist of Stoke band Razorwire, who was putting together a series of compilations called Kill Your Management.  Over the years I appeared 3 times - vol. 2 in 2001, vol. 5 in 2004 and vol. 7 in in 2006.  Nothing really came of them other than getting the name out there, but it was fun to be a part of it all.

Around this time I was also asked to join a local band of college kids whose guitarist was leaving, after the singer heard my songs and liked them.  I guested on vocals on one song at three local pub gigs in Middlesbrough before joining....for one rehearsal.  They split up after that, but I had already realised from that one rehearsal that band life (as in playing with other people) is not for me.

In the meantime I had recorded and pressed my first CD, 'The World is Beautiful, Just Don't Look Down' (copies are still available!), in 2002 and I was very happy with how it came out.  The previous sound was still present and correct but an element of the first Raging Speedhorn and Haunted albums had crept in as they were big favourites at the time of recording.  I also pressed up some 4-track samplers to send out to magazines, labels etc.  This time it was Terrorizer who answered the call, printing two 6.5/10 reviews (Jan/Feb 03 and Mar 03 issues), which may as well have been 10/10 to me, again well chuffed with the exposure.  The second review had some rather bizarre reference points, which certainly weren't intentional, but it was interesting to see journalistic opinions.


The next album was a long time in the making, eventually emerging 6 whole years after the last one.  My brother moved out of the family home, taking his instruments and recording equipment with him, but I had a job by then so I gradually built up my own stock of instruments as well as a 24 track studio for recording.

Those 24 tracks, and the fact I was no longer recording on tape, made a vast difference to the sound.  I could record more than two tracks of guitar, I had room for keyboards, backing vocals, clean vocals, and I took full advantage.  The new drum machine made things clearer and more realistic, the 6 string bass increased the bottom end where required, rhythm guitar duties were always taken on by the Washburn flying V, leaving my favourite guitar to play, the black Ibanez, covering lead guitar and solos.  The 12 string of the triple neck was used sparingly for quieter moments.  By the way, using different guitars makes me feel like a different member of the band, therefore putting extra effort into being that person....weird I know.

'The Forgotten Art of Saying No' took me from 2006 to 2008 to record as I perfected the sound during evenings, weekends and holidays.  Even the songwriting process changed, one song 'Numb' was written entirely in my head on the bus to and from work over a period of weeks.  I then had to figure out how to play what I was hearing in my head, culminating in one sound being created with one hand playing keyboards and the other hand operating a pitchshifter pedal to create a rising crescendo!  Unlike last time when the CDs were pressed and designed locally, this time round the cover art was designed by a Finn living in Washington, USA, whose speciality was usually unreadable spiky black metal logos, and the CDs were pressed in Swindon!

I also collaborated with another person for the first time under the Beneath Utopia name, the lyrics and melodies for 'Lost in Winter's Sorrow' being written by my friend Elizabeth, then in Texas.  The original plan was for the song to be a male/female duet, but recording constraints meant that didn't work out.  The song was written when she sang a verse and a chorus to me over the internet, which I recorded and pieced the music around.  The haunting, much more accessible outcome was a big change from the usual BU sound.  Overall the sound was more accessible generally though, Paradise Lost references could be heard, as well as The Haunted, Cradle of Filth, Dark Funeral and Iron Maiden - all bands with a lot more melody to their sound than my previous influences like Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death and Raging Speedhorn.  Also, with effects, I could mask my clean singing to make me sound half decent!

I was busy networking and recruiting fans at this time through MySpace, which led to my first (and so far only) interview with a New York based zine, as well as putting the word out through compilations again.  'Numb' featured on an American compilation, 'Under Mournful Moonlight' (which I was never given a copy of) and a CD given away with UK-based Empty Playground magazine issue #5, while 'Settle for Less' was included on a Brazilian metal compilation, 'Tunnel of Death', being the only UK band alongside Brazilian, Portuguese and American bands.

I also collaborated with my Portuguese friend and singer/songwriter Antonieta in Dark Souls, playing guest guitar on most songs on her 2008 album 'Winter', which even spawned a video for the song 'Sunrise'.  My performance and general setting left a lot to be desired....

As for what's next, I'm still pretty much unknown, currently writing and recording some new songs, one has been hanging around for years now waiting to be finished....some day the new album will come.....probably.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Prolific Teenage Years.....(Music Career part 2)

So, after two years and 24 "releases" between me and my brother Peter recorded on an old tape recorder, he finally bought himself a 4-track Portastudio.  Not only did our sound improve, but the amount of songs we wrote and recorded over the next two years was massive, over 50 "releases" (I keep putting it in quotes as we never actually released any of them, with the odd exception of a few which were copied for anyone that wanted one).

The date was August 1995 and I was just starting my second year at college, therefore with free periods, evenings and weekends I had plenty of time for writing songs and recording them.  At that time my main concerns were Pyf Belly Machine (mainly indie and pop punk) with my brother and Marvin (pop punk), which was me solo, although I was about to start branching out.  In 1991 when I started getting into music properly I was an indie kid who liked a bit of rock and the odd metal song (incidentally Europe's 'The Final Countdown' was my third ever 7").  By 1995 it had turned on its head - I was now a metal fan who liked a bit of rock and indie and for me the mid 90s were dominated by Pantera, Sepultura and Machine Head plus the more extreme Earache bands Bolt Thrower, Carcass, Napalm Death etc.  I needed an outlet for my more extreme leanings....

But first came the inaugural four-track recordings, a double whammy of new Pyf Belly Machine albums, 'Lummon' and 'Buy This Or The Seal Gets It'.  The latter album containing quite possibly my finest cover art.  The 4 tracks usually worked like this: I had no bass amp, so I would plug into an old stereo and hit record and play my bassline in full, this would be played into the 4 track - track 1.  Track 2 was me playing (keyboard) drums over the top of this, track 3 was my brother playing guitar and track 4 was for the vocals (and occasional solo if required).  Of course we could now mix the volumes of the various instruments and everything was a million times better.


Highlights were the jangly 'Surfing Boy', the rockier, groovier 'Fob Off' which featured lyrics from the dictionary of all places, and a cover of 'Blame it on the Boogie'.....more on that later.  The next release to surface, however, was my first foray into heavier territory and a new project called Uranium.  It was meant to be my version of Nine Inch Nails, but without any kind of technology to speak of I was scuppered from the start.  The result was a set of OK rock songs, not bad for a first effort, with the odd attempt at keyboards to make it sound a little bit industrial.  There were also covers of '...For Victory by Bolt Thrower, 'Sanctified' by NIN and 'The Last Time' by Paradise Lost thrown in to make up the numbers.  This also marked me getting back into being a proper guitarist again after being predominantly a bassist before.

Marvin also got a new lease of life and after previously writing some fairly average songs, the new sound bucked my ideas up and allowed me to go all out on my bass-driven pop punk, writing undoubtedly my best songs to date on 'Getting Serious' and 'Easier Said than Done' over a period of 6 months.  Shame about the whining teenage lyrics though.  I'm still quite proud of the guitar sound, breakneck basslines and overall feel of the best Marvin songs of that time, great memories (I later renamed Marvin for public consumption, choosing Spraypaint inspired by the Manics' 'Stay Beautiful'.


Another new band who appeared in April 1996 were The Personnel.  Their songwriting consisted of coming up with random song titles, which would be exchanged between lyricists, who would then write down the first things that came into their heads with no thought towards song structure or melody.  The music was then recorded and a host of vocalists would bring the songs to life.  The debut EP 'Geese' featured the likes of 'Bakers', 'Dogs', 'Cassocks' and 'Excremential Air Freshener'.  Did I mention the songs usually last between 15 and 60 seconds?  Quite possibly the best band there has ever been.  You can hear some of their songs (the ones marked as THE PERSONNEL obviously) by clicking here.

At the same time as The Personnel were finding their feet, another new band came into being.  I finally decided to have my own metal band and, against all my better judgement, decided on the name Oakenshield.  The name would later change into Beneath Utopia when I decided to unleash my songs onto the world, but Oakenshield/BU will be the subject of part 3 of this blog in more detail.

So, from August 1995 through to the end of 1997 there were 9 Pyf Belly Machine albums, 3 Marvin albums, 3 Uranium albums and 2 Oakenshield albums, mixed in with releases by The Personnel and various other side projects.  They covered various genres including an instrumental guitar EP by Lengthwise, a catchy but bonkers set of songs by Brouhaha and a grunge album under the name of Vein which contained some of my favourite songs from the ones I've written.

But the highlight of all this activity was undoubtedly some outside recognition in the form of an appearance on a compilation tape.  My brother occasionally used to order what we would call "benefit tapes", raising funds for some cause or other, and we put forward our version of 'Blame it on the Boogie' not thinking that it might actually be accepted.  But it was and so, among respected underground punk bands such as Oi Polloi, Bob Tilton, Baby Harp Seal, Wat Tyler and J Church, came a couple of teenagers singing in falsettos along to a guitar-based Jackson 5 cover.  We had probably never heard the original at the time, we actually covered the Big Fun version and never even bothered finding out the real words, singing "We spent the night in Bristol" for one line. It never got us anywhere but we felt kind of famous in our own little world.

Incidentally we also recorded a cover of Gina G's Eurovision classic 'Ooh Aah Just a Little Bit', which I managed to inadvertently add a Steve Harris bassline to.  We also sounded like the most Northern people ever while singing it.  Other notable covers over the years were Pyf Belly Machine's 'Not Superstitious' (Leatherface) and 'From Out of Nowhere' (Faith No More) plus Marvin versions of 'Mean Machine' (Sugar Ray), various Senseless Things songs and 'Biscuits for Smut' (Helmet).

After 1997, things slowed down recording-wise.  Beneath Utopia was my main concern, getting some mainstream magazine attention, and The Personnel still appeared every now and again, but the prolific college years were over, replaced with the slightly less prolific university years and the arid desert of the working years.  At some point the old bands probably will record some new material, but as to when who knows.....