Published on 19th February 2015
Andy Jackson – Signal To Noise
Andy Jackson, well known as the producer of Pink Floyd since the early 80’s, has now made his own fascinating record. It is fitting that such a renowned producer would use as his album title the recording industry term ‘Signal to Noise’ (comparing the level of desired signal to the level of background noise). Jackson is also using the term metaphorically with the theme of sifting out what is important in life from what is frivolous or irrelevant. It is impossible not to mention the Big Pink Elephant in the room, such is his longstanding connection with such an iconic band. However, this album is no pale shadow of Floyd as Jackson imaginatively and distinctively expresses himself across seven diverse songs.
The album opens very strongly with the shimmering, echoing sounds of The Boy In The Forest as Jackson muses on growing up and the loss of innocence, using the metaphor of a journey through the forest. Strangely, Jackson has explained that this powerful song was borne out of him improvising with the chords from country classic Wichita Linesman, demonstrating his openness to various influences, even if the resulting effects drenched piece bears little resemblance to one of it’s sources! The shifting stereo interplay of guitars on this song is mesmerizing, illustrating the boy’s path to redemption as the track fades away with the words ‘Time had finally shown him, he could always be free’. Those lines also underline Andy Jackson’s fundamental approach to this album as he felt a little compromised being in a band Eden House, with ex Fields of the Nephilim goth band member Tony Pettit. Jackson left to make music on his own terms, resulting in him playing every instrument on this album.
The drive to try to make sense from apparent random chaos imbuing this work is demonstrated most clearly on the stark simplicity of Spray Paint, based on Jackson seeing ‘R.I.P.’ followed by a name spray painted on a wall. Poignantly he found no record or trace of the name when he tried to Google it. Every word in the lyric is based on graffiti either seen by Jackson or found on the internet, and akin to secretive graffiti artists Jackson virtually whispers the lyrics. Like an aerosol paint spray trailing across a wall a subtle understated guitar solo fades away as the song closes.
Invisible Colours is possibly the least engaging track, based on a flight of fancy as Jackson imagines the colours of the rainbow as notes on a musical scale, with allusions to synaesthesia. Jackson has pointed out Syd Barrett had this condition in which senses intermingle and some experience sounds as colours. In this disappointing song there are some similarities with the Barrett sound and vocal style. Andy Jackson acknowledges himself that he is not really a vocalist, and he had singing lessons to prepare for this work. He carries off the vocals competently in a range of styles. Dream-like song One More Push has vocals with an uncanny resemblance to Robbie Robertson, while on Brownian Motion there is more than a hint of Ian Curtis from Joy Division. Jackson has also name checked Tom Waits and Nick Cave as artists he admires, alongside his obvious inspirations of David Gilmour and the progressive rock world, and these influences are hinted at in his vocals and music.
The most intriguing track is lengthy Herman At The Mountain, which Jackson subsequently revealed was based on Andrew Crumy’s book ‘Mobius Dick’ (2004), a science fiction novel describing a parallel world where Nazi Germany conquered Britain, and our worlds become connected by experiments with quantum computers. Such peculiar subject matter inspires equally strange and atmospheric music. Interestingly, Jackson has revealed that in this song he used Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards, which asks questions of the creative process and encourages lateral thinking. These cards suggested ‘Abandon Normal instruments’, which he took to mean he should drop a electric guitar riff he was struggling to use unsuccessfully, and replaced them with a combination of acoustic guitar and slide guitar. This gives the song a very restrained but sinister other worldly feel, wholly appropriate to the puzzling and unsettling theme of the song. This insight into his song writing and the cerebral manner in which he creates sound underlines the atmospheric nature of an album that speaks to you with subtlety, hints and imaginative restraint.
Before becoming a producer Andy Jackson revealed in a recent interview with Mark Ashby on the ‘Progtopia’ podcast that he had aspirations to study metallurgy, which may explain his knowledge used in final track Brownian Motion (the random motion of particles suspended in gas or liquid, resulting from their collision with the quick atoms or molecules in the gas or liquid). This randomness was reflected in the creation of this song as Jackson cut pieces up and pieced them together again, but out of chaos he has created a coherent dark song with Floydian slide guitars and other effects playing off the pulsating bass and the Joy Division style bedrock of the song. Lyrically Jackson applies that scientific theory to humanity as the song describes the random, irrational choices we all make, with hints of The Diceman (1971) novel by Luke Rhinehart.
‘Life in Brownian motion, a random kind of solution, lines with rhyme but no reason, all at sea without vision’
Wind chimes aptly dreamily chime in early song One More Push, based on a dream in which Jackson imagined a word that had tremendous meaning, but when he woke up he could not remember the word. He cleverly evokes the disjointed vague feeling of not quite being able to remember a dream through use of peculiar noises and a strange distorted guitar solo. The mythical figure of Sisyphus, forever rolling a rock up a hill, is used as a metaphor for life as Jackson sings when I tried I found the point was the climb, I’m gonna roll this rock . The striking cover painting ‘Sisyphus Sleeping’ by Michael Bergt may sum up Jackson’s reconciliation with the eternal struggle in life as he strives to create some sense of order from chaos, focusing on what is important rather than materialism and hedonism. It All Came Crashing Down may not be the finale, but it was the last song written for the album and it sums up the feel and theme of the album. Inspired by seeing a collapsed building after a large storm Jackson uses it to signify the fragility of the structures in our life, and uses a sound bed of effects dripping with various organic noises to represent chaos and fragility. As the short song develops more melody and instrumentation is introduced as optimism grows, and we hear:
The Love from the Fear, The Value of Failure, The Knowledge of Choice, The Crackle of Stillness, The Signal to Noise, Signal to Noise
Signal To Noise is not a ‘concept album’, but there are very clear themes running through this thoughtful and thought provoking album. The quality of production is what one would expect from someone nominated twice for Grammys for Pink Floyd albums. What is less expected is that such an intriguing album would emerge from someone more normally behind the mixing desk, suffused with engaging ideas drawn from science, literature, urban street art, mythology and personal experience, all expressed within interesting musical frameworks. This is a progressive and fascinating album brimming with concepts and imagery, which needs time to absorb but will handsomely reward repeated listenings – but then that reflects the theme of this release – the value gained in taking time to make sense from chaos and realise what is worthwhile and important.
01. The Boy In The Forest
02. One More Push
03. Invisible Colours
04. Spray Paint
05. Herman At The Mountain
06. It All Came Crashing Down
07. Brownian Motion
Total Time 48:36
Andy Jackson – All Instrumentation & Voices
Record Label: Esoteric Antenna
Catalogue Number: EANTCD 1040
Year of Release: 2014