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Sometimes, you hear a song and immediately fall in love with the artist, even if you may never have heard of them before that moment. A band that I have experienced this with is Lunatic Wolf, a six-piece folk band from South Africa. Despite being completely unknown to me, I heard one of their songs on a playlist on 8tracks and was immediately struck by the melody and layering of instruments. Their music is a folk-rock mixture, and their songs use big productions of instruments to create songs which still sound gentle and soft. According to their website, the band was originally a duo, but expanded to a six-member group later on. However, you can still hear the beginnings of the band in their intricate guitar melodies that would have worked together beautifully even as a simple two-person act. The first song that I heard by them was a perfect example of all of this, which is why I was so intrigued by the band. The song is called “The Tallest Tree,” and it is about growing older and no longer being able to do all of the things that you used to, and not feeling as free and innocent anymore. It is one of my favorite recordings because of how thoughtfully it is arranged and recorded.
The introduction of the song and first chorus have two acoustic guitars and an acoustic piano with sustain. However, the instruments are panned out almost completely to the sides, with the piano and lead guitar to the left, and the other guitar strumming to the right. The effect is a very full sound, which still delicately compliment the clear vocals. The recording of the acoustic guitars still contains the sounds of the strumming, making it feel very organic despite the production.
The opening for any song is important because it is the first thing that the listener hears, so it has to draw them into the song. It works perfectly in this instance, because the instruments all fit together perfectly, despite their intricate melodies and rhythms. The panning of the two acoustic guitars to opposite sides of the recording also creates an interesting sound, allowing the two very different guitar parts to play off of each other but still sound distinct. The instrumental introduction creates all of this compelling music, but is mixed very well to allow the vocals to be the foremost part of the recording when they enter as the first verse begins without becoming muddy.
Before the first chorus comes in, the music quiets down a little bit before a crescendo to transition into new instrumentation. The acoustic guitars, which had been very prominent before, drop back to allow the piano to accompany the vocal melody. However, instead of the piano playing a melody like it did in the verse, it is playing only chords during the chorus. The guitars also become muted strumming instead of the picking that had been more noticeable during the verse. A synth playing chords repetitively is also added to the mix, although it stays in the back of the recording.
The transition into the chorus creates a huge contrast between the two sections. When the music becomes quiet, it is almost as if it is showing disappointment and fear to go along with the lyrics: “Why did this happen/How did I grow so tall?” This creates emphasis on this part of the lyrics, which reveal the point of what the singer was talking about in the first verse. The quiet synth creates an almost shiny quality to the music. Although there isn’t much going on in the chorus, which is the opposite of many songs, it perfectly reflects the meaning of the song and fits well with its structure.
After the first chorus, more instruments come in, bringing the song to the next level. In the foreground is an electric guitar with a lot of reverb. Percussion is also added in, by way of a drum set and a shaker of some kind, and bass, although the bass is very mixed in. The piano is also prominent, and the synth and strummed acoustic guitar are still audible as well, although the guitar is pushed all the way to the back. When the vocals come back in, the electric guitar drops out, and the vocals now have multiple harmonic voices during important parts of each line of lyrics, adding an extra layer to the performance which emphasizes the words which are most relevant to the overall meaning.
This section of the song is where it really reaches its full emotional power because of the full sound and mix of instruments. The sliding notes of the electric guitar, which are then replaced by the harmonic vocals, play over a chorus of seemingly independent rhythms which actually accompany each other perfectly. If you listen to this part of the recording carefully, you will hear the different rhythms, especially with respect to the melody played by the electric guitar and vocals, the piano, and the synth. The introduction of percussion in this section also creates a completely different feel to the song, whereas before it was a soft, gentle song, but after the drums are added in it seems more agitated, and the addition of more voices in the vocal part gives it a fuller quality.
Following the second chorus, which is the same as the first except that it also has drums, there is an instrumental interlude, with muted guitars, synth, drums, and a shaker, but which focuses on a piano melody. In addition to this, however, every so often there are additional piano or guitar notes, mixed in so thoroughly that you would hardly notice unless you were listening carefully. There are very high piano notes panned to the right, and guitar notes panned to the left, making it seem as though they are not only in the background, but coming from far away. After the final vocal section, the song partially repeats the instrumental section from after the first chorus, and then fades out to only muted acoustic guitars, piano, and percussion, finishing on a final piano chord.
The second chorus is mostly the same as the first, except for the adding in of the drums. The drums serve to continue the more agitated feeling of the second half of the song that began after the first chorus ended, and it works very well in the chorus by playing short drum rhythms with brushes and the bass drum. Although the drums in the second chorus are not as big as they are in the preceding section, they do their job exactly the way that they need to, giving it that added structure and energy.
The instrumental bridge and final vocal section are some of the most deliberate sections of the recording, in my opinion. When it begins, it adds in only a new piano melody and percussion from a shaker instrument in addition to the drums, creating a very subtle but noticeable difference from the chorus, which only had piano chords instead of a melody. This is also very different from the last instrumental interlude following the first chorus, which added in many different instruments and had a big sound – the opposite of this section. Even more subtly, the added-in piano and guitar notes add a new texture to the music despite being so soft. The fact that they are panned all the way to the left or right emphasizes this added element. Then, the final vocal section is similar to the choruses in that it marks a decrescendo, beginning with only the vocals, piano chords, and synth. At the end, it adds in a short piano melody and muted acoustic guitars to transition into a repeat of the first instrumental section. Ending on a single piano chord creates a slightly abrupt feeling, but the sustain on the piano keeps it fading it softly for a while, allowing the notes to ring and let the listener feel that the meaning of the song has been fulfilled.
Despite such a mix of instruments throughout this song, the recording still has a good dynamic range. This is especially noticeable during the transitions between sections of the song. Between the verse and chorus, the instruments get quiet and then crescendo into the chorus, which drops down in volume quickly to contrast the sections. Having a good dynamic range is especially important for a mostly-acoustic song like this which has a lot of emotion in it, because those dynamics are an important part of showing the feeling in a song. The recording of this song does this very well.
This recording is one of my favorites because of the precise way in which the instruments are layered together and complement each other perfectly. The rhythms and melodies of the guitars and piano, and the subtleties of the other instruments, meld together to form a complete piece thanks to the careful, delicate mixing. The recording also matches the emotions in the lyrics, which I think is important for any song to show real feeling. I feel that the mixing in this song is done very well because of the way that the instruments work together so well and still are able to have dynamic range without becoming muddy, as you can still hear clearly every single instrumental piece of the song. “The Tallest Tree” makes it easy to see why Lunatic Wolf is a talented band that is easy to fall in love with.
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