Plutonium Dirigible - Buzzy Tonic

Plutonium Dirigible album cover image

Plutonium Dirigible (or maybe Atomic Airship) is the working title of the upcoming fifth album from Buzzy Tonic. It returns to rock-oriented songs with lyrics, expanding the funky prog-pop palette of saxes and synths with greater use of electric guitars.

Lyrics and music by Martin Szinger, arr. John Szinger 2020

The Story Lies was originally written by my brother Martin back in the days of his band Shade. It's very much a groove song. My version is funkier and jazzier than the original, which was more of an alt-rocker, mainly due the to a new bass line and the addition of a clavinet.

I spent alot of effort putting on an electric guitar part on this song. This is kind of a big deal for me cuz many of my songs have no guitar at all. First I learned the guitar part from Martin's original version. Then I experimented with the sound, playing effects thru and amp until I got something I liked. I recorded both a clean and FX channel, and then further processed the tone by adding an overdrive amp simulator in software. In end I ended out scooping out most of the low frequencies to make more space for the bass and everything else in the mix.

The song features a sax jamming over the top of everything. The chorus has a great chord progression that lends itself to the John Coltrane sheets of sound approach, so I managed to work a little of that in. The lead vocal is a single track with no harmonies. I really enjoyed singing it, and ended up with an expressive vocal delivery. On the original version there were some high harmony backing vocals. I added a synth part on the chorus instead to suggest that kind of lift, and a sprinkled few other synth accent throughout.

Lyrics and music by The Cheshire Cat, arr. John Szinger 2020

Who Speaks on Your Behalf was originally written by The Cheshire Cat, IMO the best band to come out of Buffalo in the late 80's and early 90's. Maybe even better better than my own group jazz fusion group Event Horizon. There really was a lot of great music at that time and place.

The Cat consisted of John Massé on vocals and keys, Joe Q on vocals and bass, Ryan Boyle on vocals and drums, and Mike McLaughlin on guitar. They had alot of talent, with three strong singers at both lead and backing vocals, with different style voices and great harmonies. They were all excellent musicians, and everyone in the group wrote. Their sound was sort of pop-prog, a blend of synthesizers and guitars, often heavy, sometimes funky or atmospheric, with influences of Rush, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Faith No More, Grand Funk Railroad, King's X and the Chili Peppers, to name a few.

They had alot of great songs, but Who Speaks on Your Behalf was my favorite. It has a lot going on musically, and moves from mood to mood, heavy to sunny and back, with a big build section. Structurally, motivically, lyrically and harmonically everything is tightly related, almost a pocket symphony on the level of Strawberry Fields Forever or Good Vibrations. Plus it has a great lyric.

I figured the song out on piano many years ago when the Cat were playing it live regularly. For this version I went back and listened to the record to make sure I had the form and the chords right. I ended up spending most of the time on the track programming the drums and practicing the opening riff on bass. Everything else went down pretty quickly. I was happily surprised at how easy it was to get a great take on my vocals.

The Cat's guitar part was way beyond my abilities, so instead I put on some synthesizers and a horn section consisting of a soprano and a tenor sax. The sound of my version is somewhere in the neighborhood of Steely Dan or 80's Sting with a dash of Pepperland. The guys in the Cat liked it, and seem really flattered that someone remembers their song and cares enough to do a new interpretation after all this time. It was worth it, it's a great song.

Lyrics and music by John Szinger, 2020

An alphabet song with a Canadian twist. I originally wrote this as a contribution to my brother-in-law Lou's follow-up album to He's My Bear, an album of songs for children which he wrote and recorded when his kids were little. I also agreed to produce the record. We recorded about a half an album worth of demos, and I began laying down the actual tracks. However life keeps you busy and we were never able to complete the project.

Why Not Zed? is basically a mixed-up A-B-C's song, using the Canadian pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet, as in Zed Zed Top. It turns out a lot of Americans aren’t hip to this. So take off, eh! For the version on this record I worked up the arrangement on guitar. I had originally envisioned it as something like They Might Be Giants might come up with, but it took on more of a Crimso Astronomy Domine vibe with alot of half-step chord movement. A fairly heavy, rocking uptempo number, sort of post-prog pop-punk.

The bass and drums went down first. The drums are mainly midi but have a really good groove and sound. The bass part is pretty active and gave the song alot of character. It required some practice. Recoding the guitar part couldn’t have been easier. I split the output and recorded one channel clean and the other thru my stomp box. I used preset #60, a basic heavy distortion, very meaty. The part went down just like that, in one take. I discovered a great voicing for a 7#9 chord to end the song on. I recorded a second take, even though I probably didn’t need to, just cuz I was having fun. I almost feel like the guitar is secretly easier than any other instrument, at least for a certain style where you can let the effects do most of the work.

I added some piano and synth to round the arrangement, and some backing vocals. Then just the solo that was left. I decided to do it on the sax, with the idea of adding some effects. It turns out even a little distortion is pretty overpowering and drastically alters the tone. So I split the signal so I could mix in an overdrive amp with the normal sax tone. I did the first version of the solo on tenor, but later redid it on bari since I liked the bari so much on Bluezebub. Now it sounds way hipper, darker and heavier, sort of a Morphine vibe.

Lyrics and music by John Szinger, 2022

A country song in 3/4 time, and the second in my guitar singer-songwriter experiments. My Ol’ Brokedown Truck is pretty much a traditional country song, although with different lyrics and chord voicings it might be something like a jazz standard from the great American songbook. I wrote it around Christmastime when I was visiting my parents and my Mum asked me to explain to her Nashville notation. I did by way of demonstration, starting by writing down the title and eight bars of chord changes, and then a bridge, and suddenly I had the beginnings of a song. The lyrics also came quite quickly and naturally, and I liked it well enough to to finish it.

I recorded a basic track with guitar, bass drums and vocal. The guitar sound may take liberties with the conventions of the genre, bringing in some energy of bands like Cake or the The Black Keys. The vocal has a low and high harmony part, and I decided it’d sound better with a female voice doing the high harmony. I asked my sister-in-law Mary, who has been in a number of singing groups over the years, if she’d like to do the part. She came in and nailed it, and lifted the song to a whole 'nuther level.

The hardest thing was to get the right sound for the solo on the intro, outro and middle eight. A sax was definitely not appropriate, and I don't play pedal steel guitar or fiddle, or banjo or mandolin, and the chords modulate so a harmonica won't work. I experimented with various synthesizer sounds, trying to harken back to a rare moment in pop music where pedal steel guitars played side by side with analog synths, as exemplified by songs Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Billy Joel's The Great Suburban Showdown, or Jackson Browne's The Load-Out. But the right tone eluded me. I ended up using a melodica (a funny little keyboard instrument that you blow into) run thru a boxy amp simulator, spring reverb and tremolo effect, and it was just the thing.

Lyrics and music by John Szinger, 2021

A love song. I started this one when I was in a phase of writing singer-songwriter style things on guitar. The original idea was an uptempo boogie shuffle number in the mold of Can’t Get Enough by Bad Company (or is Free?). As I developed it, it became slower and bluesier and a bit less glib, since I’m not so young anymore and my relationship goals aren’t that same as a teenager’s. So it’s a bit more retrospective, looking back on young love from a distance.

Musically, it’s alot more pop than my last song, but still with some interesting twists. The meter shifts from 4/4 to 6/4 throughout, but is more easily expressed as 2/4. I had the basic arrangement of guitar, piano, bass and drums, with the bass kinda channeling Geddy Lee in the verse. But I felt it needed something more. To finish it off I added a horn section of tenor and bari sax, and an ’80’s style lead synthesizer. It took a little while to get the tone and dynamics right on the synth, and the riff itself. Lastly I added some real cymbals, played with mallets, to the intro and outro to support the guitar and bring some warmth into supplement the midi sample drum kit.

Lyrics and music by John Szinger, 2022

I wrote this song in a season of darkness. I wrote the lyric a while back, the one day sat down at the piano and came up with pretty much the entire song, the main riff, the chords, the overall structure and various sections, pretty much all in one sitting. (I wrote a song ‘Los Gatos de la Cosmos’ for my jazz group Spacecats around the same time. It’s a nice little samba based on the harmony of a minor-major-seventh chord, and nice atmospheric spacy jam section in the middle. It started as an attempt to get inside the head of Jobim, but owes more to Nica’s Dream by Horace Silver and Tea in the Sahara by the Police, and ended up taking on a direction of its own. More on that once we get the tune together.)

In the Purple Circus is in key of E (minor, from a certain point of view) and the vibe emerged as dark, proggy and heavy. The main riff is in 13/8 time with a couple extra beats after four repetitions so the complete phrase fills seven bars of 4/4 time. This made it much easier to sequence in ProTools. The riff uses a downward harmonic progression, starting on a dorian minor, moving to the half-diminished, then the suspended fourth and landing on a #9 dominant 7 chord. Lots of buzzy tritones and semitones rubbing against one another. The verse and bridge continue these rhythmic and harmonic motifs. The time goes to straight 4, but there’s an overlaid 3-against-4 feel, with the downward harmony moving around, and the phrases work out to seven bars throughout. Then there’s a middle section which takes the main riff and breaks it down, brings it down to a whisper, and builds it back up into a monstrous sonic maelstrom.

The piano track went down first, then midi drums, and it started to take shape with some real character. Next was bass guitar, which features heavy use of chording on the top two strings while an open E rings out on the bottom; that sounded pretty badass. A low E is about 40 Hz. Having seen Steve Hackett earlier this year, I was inspired by his prodigious use of Moog Taurus pedals to bring the really deep bass. So I created a bass synth part, an octave below the bass guitar to really emphasize the E-ness on that 20hz tone. This is right about at the lower limit of human hearing, to say nothing of the frequency response of one’s speakers. Even on my high-quality but normal studio monitors it sounds pretty great. I’d love to get a massive subwoofer and hook it into the system.

Next came the electric guitar. For this record my goal is to put guitar on all the songs, and to develop an approach and guitar part for each song. On this one the sound was a pretty full and distorted, and I worked out chord voicings both low and high in the range using open strings where I could, to bring out the dissonance and resonance. I laid down the part and it was just overwhelming! So I had to rethink both the guitar and bass parts to have a bit more space and interplay, to fit together as if they’re the left and right hand parts of some giant 10-string meta instrument. And to practice the parts to be tighter, with particular attention to the jam/riff bits at the end of the phrases where it builds up over a B altered chord.

I did the vocals next. After I began tracking it, I realized the song has a very wide vocal range, close to three octaves. I think I sound strong throughout and was happy with the expressiveness of the take as well.

Finally came the saxes. I started with the tenor sax, and came up with a riff that starts at the very bottom of the range and builds up to a wailing altissimo, up to the second C above middle C. There's also a solo towards the end of the build section, and in the outro. Finally, I added a bari sax to reinforce the deep heavy bass.

Lyrics and music by John Siznger, 2015-2023

The concept for A Plague of Frogs is to depict a battle on the planet Mars between the humans and an alien invader from another solar system. At its heart it's inspired by an imagainary mashup of By Tor and the Snow Dog by Rush and I.G.Y. by Donald Fagen, with a bunch of other ideas thrown in. In the solo section, the sax represents the humans and Earth, while the synthesizer represents the aliens on Mars. They duel it out, trading riffs and building intensity, something like a boss fight in a video game. Then on to the big unison riff section and further craziness.

I’ve been working on this song a while. In fact I started it during the sessions for Elixr, two albums ago. Before that, the intro riff has its origins in a piece called Futbol Anthem, which I wrote way back when I worked for an ad agency in the ’90s. APoF is very much an in-the-studio creation, and takes advantage of ProTools’s ability to make arrangements you’d probably never do with a live group: shifting meters, stacked synth and drum layers, etc. There was alot of moving sections around trying different sequences to get the right flow. The goal is a song that’s enjoyable to listen to for the whole nine-plus minutes, an entertaining ride, sorta like a movie for the ears.

In the end, this was probably the most complicated song I've attempted to record, arrange and produce, in the terms of number of interlocking themes, changes in sound and tone, overall length, and sheer number of tracks and layers. I made it a battle between sax vs. synth (rather than guitar), and I really leaned in to the bloopy, buzzy sound of the synthesizer in my playing to create an alien vibe. After I did the synth solo I had to put it aside for a while. I was in a phase of listening to heavily layered 80's records like So, Synchronicity and Power Windows, and had a bunch more ideas to further develop the arrangement. I got to a place where the build up in the middle section was satisfying, and after that there was nowhere else to go. I found myself sculpting the sound by taking things away rather than continuing to add more and more, and once that realization hit it was pretty quick to finish up the song and get to a good mixdown. The rest of the kitchen sink will have to wait for other songs.

Lyrics and music by John Szinger, 2023

After the epic effort to finish of my last song, A Plague of Frogs, my new studio album Plutonium Dirigible is nearing completion. I’m up to thirty-seven minutes of music. I have another song, called Sisyphus’s Blues, a reworking of a song I’d recorded previously but not released, which will bring it up to just over forty minutes. I feel like an album should usually be between forty and forty-five minutes long, so that leaves room for one more song.

The new song is called Head Downtown. It came together really quickly and was alot of fun. I’ve had the lyric for a while. It began as a bit of wordplay based on the observation that the terms for many body parts can also be used as verbs. From there it evolved in to a story about a down-on-his-luck kind of character, perhaps some kind of petty gangster or hard-boiled gumshoe, trying navigate the give-and-take of life in the city. The music started of kinda jazzoid, with parts of the chord progression lifted from Duke Jordan and Horace Silver. But as I fleshed out the arrangement the shuffle groove took on a sort of ska/reggae feel. The feel of the bass and drums was inspired by the Sting and the Police, alternating between mellow and strident sections. Building on that, the guitar part was very Andy Summers-esque, with a minimalist atmospheric riff and then a big chunky rhythm groove on the backbeat, all laden with chorus and delay. The lead vocals went down fast, and the bridge was more or less written on the spot. A couple horns and a soprano sax solo completed the arrangement. Now comes the endless tweaking to balance the mix.

Music by and lyrics by John Szinger

After completing Bluezebub, a departure into computer jazz, I went back to work on the next record, which features rock songs with vocals. I had three songs already done, and I began work on the three new songs, all short, singer-songwriter style songs written on guitar as a kind of experiment.

The first and last of these was Sisyphus Blues. The version here is a reworking of an older song, with a new melody. It starts with a slow blues guitar intro, and the lyric is a mediation on the ups and downs of life. The feel is old-timey guitar blues, with a drop-D tuning. The riff behind the lyric was originally inspired by a song from my pre-pandemic jazz group, another slow blues. I repaced it with a new original riff, as well as an all-new song form, sound and arrangement and even some new chords. The arrangement is fairly sparse, with just a single vocal, guitar, bass and drum. To finish it off I added a bit of elecric piano, and of course a smokey bluesy sax. I also did real drums, playing brushes on the snare, since I have no way to create that using midi and samples.

Bonus Tracks

In the Purple Circus (Rhythm Instruments Mix)

An ealy demo of the song. Piano, bass guitar, drums, electic gutiar, bass synth. Very heavy, big bottom.

Futbol Anthem

An ealy verison of the part the became the fanfare section or A Plague of Frogs.

Musical compositions and audio recordings ©John Szinger. Published by Zing-Man Music, all rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction and distribution for commercial purposes is prohibited.