Few things complement Blue Six's Aquarian Angel better than low lighting, candles and afterdinner brandy. But with a stylish buffet of soulful vocals, moonlit-beach atmospherics and touches of deep house, the album feels occasionally gloomy. Born under the Aquarius sign, Blue Six mastermind and Naked Music founder Jay Denes calls Aquarian Angel “a moody and introspective record.” As such, it brims with clearly defined moments of soul-searching and seeking, seemingly aligned with Denes' progressive astrological identity.
“The real theme of the record has more to do with the Aquarian Age, spiritual transformation and that sort of thing,” he says. “I know it all sounds a bit new age-y, but it's quite the opposite, sonically. It's got all four seasons on it; it's very much a year of my life. Let's face it, we're going to be needing some angels to make it through this decade.”
Denes got tired of remixing various artists after Blue Six's Beautiful Tomorrow (Astralwerks) dropped in 2002, so he began producing albums for Naked Music vocalists Aya and Lisa Shaw, who appear on Aquarian Angel (also on Naked Music, 2007). Aya's verses on Aquarian's “Harbour” counter topical, war-related tragedy (“the high price of freedom”) with serene, seaside imagery over sounds of rushing tides and an acoustic guitar-driven melody. Denes doesn't overuse the ambient sounds the way that stale lounge-y house compilations packaged with airbrushed bikini-model pics do; “Harbour” stands out with its sturdily structured framework and intermittent guitar strumming.
“I played the guitars on keys first, and then I had my friend Saul Rubin come in and duplicate them,” says Denes. “There are no loops, but there are many layers and a lot of editing! It's quite difficult to make a delicate tapestry that's unobtrusive and stays out of the way of the vocal. Dave Boonshoft [Denes' partner and Naked Music co-founder] played fretless bass on that one. I did the remaining keys and percussion. Of course, the whole thing rests on Aya's delivery. It's all about a convincing vocal, and I think she came through with flying colors.”
Denes wrote “Harbour” after spending time with friends in the Hamptons. The getaway spot usually encourages gluttony and white-trash drunkenness among Hollywood and NYC's decorated elite, and while there, Denes was troubled about what he calls America's poisoning “by greed,” being surrounded by the “numb and wealthy” during his visit. “Harbour” is fittingly a sullen mid-tempo entry, with synth washes tempering Boonshoft's acoustic-guitar picking.
While Denes holds dear his Clavia Nord Lead and Studio Electronics SE-1 synths, he returns frequently to the sounds stored in his Apple Logic EXS24 soft sampler. Case in point is the upbeat “A Woman of the World,” with its mild, pulsing house rhythm, hypnotic vocal trails and background augmentation. “That's a chain of some crazy number of tape echoes, reverbs, etc., in a row,” Denes says of the loosely flowing vocal snippets (for which he also used outboard limiters from Manley Labs and Tube-Tech). “I do that kind of thing a lot. Catherine Russell sang those beautifully; they sounded haunting even when they were dry. I use a lot of ambient noise all over the album. Those are seagulls on there along with the piano — anything for a little atmosphere.”
A lot of atmosphere might better describe Aquarian Angel, but Denes, a self-confessed “dedicated Logic user,” knows when enough is enough. For him, focusing on keeping his mental state clear while producing is key to doing good music. Considering that even trips to the Hamptons can dampen the mood, one has to ponder how Denes maintained his sanity after laboring over layering dense walls of pad sounds and percussive snaps in numbers such as Aquarian's title track.
“There is such an abundance of excellent stuff, both hardware and software, that at a certain point it ceases to matter,” he offers. “It's much more about content and the abilities of the user. Anyone can buy a Stratocaster, but that doesn't make him Jimi Hendrix. I've made some great-sounding stuff and some horrible-sounding stuff. It wasn't the gear; it was where my head was at.”