By Carl Begai
Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light is arguably one of the strongest works in Woods Of Ypres frontman / founder David Gold’s catalogue of music. It’s certainly his most accessible album. Sadly, it also marks David’s final journey.
Killed in a car accident mere months before the official release, David never had the opportunity to enjoy the praise or consider the criticism of what is the most adventurous album of his career. And despite the accolades heaped to the sky, the simple truth is that not all diehard Woods Of Ypres fans will like it. Grey Skies & Electric Light is loaded with the doom and gloom they’ve come to expect, but the way it’s presented is much different from the revered Woods 3 and 4 records. David’s clean voice dominates the new production over his death metal growls, the song arrangements don’t have the crushing density of its predecessors, and it’s loaded with brazen hooks big and small. Not what some expect of the blackened doom underground cornerstone of the genre. Current reactions indicate, however, that the majority of followers consider Woods 5 to be a masterpiece, and not merely as a show of respect for the fallen.
In an effort to showcase the new music, I spoke with Kittie vocalist / guitarist Morgan Lander, producer Siegfried Meier, and Woods Of Ypres guitarist Joel Violette, all of whom accompanied and worked with David during various stages of Grey Skies & Electric Light’s creation.
Morgan and David were very close, and while the details of their relationship remain private – something that should be respected by my media brethren – she was kind enough to share her inside look at the making of Woods 5 as she saw it.
Credit where it’s due, Morgan played a significant role in the making of the record by hooking David up with Siegfried Meier.
“David started writing for Woods 5 when he got back from Kuwait, and Kittie had gone into the studio with Sig around that time,” she begins. “Our experiences with Sig (on the Oracle, In The Black and I’ve Failed You albums) have been very positive, and the studio – which he built from the ground up – is amazing. I think he’s a lot of fun, he’s very knowledgeable about what he does, and he’s laid back. I expressed to David that our experiences with Sig had been very good, as were Sig’s production values. David had told me stories about how, up until Woods 5… he just seemed less than pleased with the experiences, and sometimes with the way things had turned out sonically. It’s a positive environment working with Sig, so I’m glad they worked together.”
The pair walked similar paths in professional life long before they met. Both began their musical journey at a young age – Morgan in her teens, David at 21 – and both launched bands viewed as underdogs on the Canadian metal scene. It’s fair to say their separate experiences may have been an additional foundation for their relationship on an unconscious level.
“Absolutely,” Morgan agrees. “We definitely had a lot of industry talks, about how label people operate, that sort of thing. I think that on paper, the idea of someone like me and someone like David getting along or having anything in common doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we did share a lot of experiences both personally and professionally.”
Those experiences translated into trust for David, who was by nature a very private person. As a result, he approached Morgan every so often during Woods 5’s development for an expert opinion on the songs he was coming up with.
“A good portion of the album was written here in my apartment. I have a spare room, and it’s funny because, when I first met David, it was off limits because I’d moved in six months earlier with two tours in between, so I hadn’t had the opportunity to get settled and sort my life. So, I kind of put everything in that spare room. He stayed for a couple weeks in January, and when he was off at a gig – I think it was in Richmond, Virginia – I actually cleaned up the room, bought a desk and a chair, and basically set up a music room for him.”
“He was very serious about his writing and having his space to work. I specifically remember him writing ‘Travelling Alone’ here, and a bunch of riffs and stuff. He treated songwriting very much like a 9-to-5 job, so he’d lock himself away to work, and he’d call me every once in a while to take a listen. When Joel was sending him ideas for stuff he’d let me take a listen and ask for some feedback. I thought it was really cool to be asked to do that.”
David also welcomed Morgan into his own backyard… literally.
“I was in Sault Ste Marie for a week while Joel and him were writing and demo-ing,” she reveals, “so I got an especially candid look at their process and how David planned and laid out the album. He was so meticulous about everything, with dry erase boards mapping out concepts and ideas for the songs, and his lyric books all scattered about ‘little house’ in the backyard, which was his makeshift office in the north. He treated the planning of an album like blueprints for an invention. I heard him practice drums every day, and got to look over working concepts for Woods 6 and Woods 7, which he was already starting to think about and map out.”
“I was surprised by how the creative process developed. When we were apart he’d send me vocal demos. He did the vocal demo for ‘Travelling Alone’ in his car singing along to the guitar track. The song is quite different from what it started out as, but it’s cool to have these original takes.”
“He sent me some funny stuff, too. There’s an outtake of him singing ‘Finality’, and he farts in the middle of it and just starts cracking up (laughs). Oh my God, it’s funny as hell. The paradox of him making an album where the content is so sobering and heavy and depressing, then sending me this clip of himself farting and ruining the track, it’s hilarious (laughs).”
Asked if she has a favourite song on Woods 5, or if there’s one track that holds a special meaning, Morgan admits it’ll take some time before she’s able to immerse herself in the new music.
“That album is so hard to listen to after everything that’s happened, because it’s about death, enjoying your life, and questioning what’s on the other side. I think ‘Finality’ is a beautiful song, though.”
“I think it’s strange and ironic that Woods 5 will be released and David won’t be here to see it reach its potential,” she adds. “He won’t see things take shape the way he wanted them to. His dream was to release an album of all original new music on a label. I’d like to see it do really well, because he made an amazing album.”
Diehard fans have been and will be stunned by the lyrical irony of the new album given the tragic circumstances surrounding it. The song ‘Adora Vivos’ in particular, which features a metal-intense David proclaiming ‘We shouldn’t worship the dead…’ to a fanbase that has offered a huge outpouring of love and respect since his passing.
“I remember discussing the whole idea of hero worship with him, which is what ‘Adora Vivos’ is about,” Morgan offers. “The idea of someone being ridiculed in life and suddenly revered when they die. Like Michael Jackson; he was called a freak and a child molestor, and people had all kinds of horrible, nasty things to say about him. When he died, suddenly he was the King Of Pop again.”
Friends and fans will pay tribute to David in April with two shows in his honour, in Toronto and Sault Ste Marie on the 5th and 7th respectively. Kittie will perform at both shows, hopefully providing Morgan with some sense of closure.
“It’s actually a miracle we’re going to be around for those shows. Our tour starts on April 10th, so we’ll be at both of them. We’re going to do a couple of Woods songs, and some of our own songs as well. I know that David and his friend Rich Moreland, who is organizing the Sault Ste Marie show, had talked a lot about doing some sort of a yearly festival, so Rich has honoured David by continuing on with the idea by running with it and making it an annual thing. We’re going to play the inaugural festival, so we’ll do more of a full set with a couple Woods songs. Toronto is the CD release party, so I guess we’ll do one of our songs and some Woods tracks.”
As for which Woods Of Ypres songs Kittie will be tackling, Morgan mentions two songs in particular. In the interest of surprise we’ll keep the tracks in question under wraps, but David would definitely approve of hearing Morgan sing them.
“David would get a good laugh out of it, I’m sure.”
Once the songs for Grey Skies & Electric Light had been taken as far as they could go in the demo stages, David followed up on Morgan’s link to Siegfried Meier. He and Joel Violette made their way to Beach Road Studios in Goderich, Ontario for a two week session of recording and related mayhem…
“I think it was early on into doing I’ve Failed You that Morgan told David about me,” Sig remembers. “He contacted me via email and checked out the stuff I’d done, and he actually scared me a bit at first (laughs). He was this larger than life figure, and when you got to know him you discovered he was a really nice, sweet guy. We communicated back and forth from April 2011 up until August, when they came in to do the record. Nothing was certain at that point, because they lost two members (Shane and Evan Madden) right before they came to the studio. It was just David and Joel, and I didn’t find out until the day before they arrived.”
“I have a band house here, so when bands come to the studio they live at the location, which is across the yard from the studio. So, beds are prepared and all that stuff. When they told me it was just the two of them, I thought ‘This is going to be easy…’ (laughs). It ended up being great, but it was difficult at the same time because when you’ve got four or five guys in a band, everyone keeps each other in check. When it’s two guys and me, or a solo artist and me, it’s always me against them or him. No matter how good I tell that person something is, he or she will be questioning it.”
Sig went back and did the necessary “research” on the Woods Of Ypres catalogue so he knew what he was getting himself into, but had no preconceived notions about the new material
“I’d heard all the older stuff, and David had been sending me the demos before they came to the studio. The thing is, those demos were a whole bunch of guitar tracks slapped together, no drums, maybe a click track playing, and no vocals. Those were the tunes (laughs). For me, that’s like the guitar player in a band holding the phone up to play me a song he just wrote, where I’m going ‘What the fuck? I can’t hear anything but noise!’ That’s kind of what the demos were like, but I noticed right away there was more catchiness to these tunes compared to the older ones. This was the first release for Earache, so David wanted to make sure he had the best songs he could possibly come up with.”
“I’m kinda sick of the whole Nickelback sound,” he adds, looking at it from the technical side of the production, “because there are 50 million guitar tracks and it’s one big wash. I want to hear the guitar and the tone of the amp. I did that with the I’ve Failed You record; it was tighter, less washy, and that’s what I was going for overall with the Woods 5 album.”
“We were working under extreme time constraints, with only two weeks to track the whole record, and one week of that were the drums because they always take the longest. That probably not the case with some of these newer bands, because they’re just programming drums in Pro-Tools and saying ‘This sounds so siiiiick!’ and it’s all fake. With real album I’ll never, ever program drums, and David was a great drummer. I prefer the sound of Slayer over Periphery any day (laughs). So, the second week was used to do guitars and vocals, and we had different stations set up so we could get everything done all at once. Recording the album was a bit of a blur, to be honest with you. It went so fast. The reason it’s relatively sparse has to do with the fact that we only had those two weeks. We did as much as we could in that duration of time, but I think what we did end up with in pretty damn impressive.”
Oddly enough, the one aspect of Woods 5 that made the biggest impact on Sig had nothing to do with the music.
“The record really blows me away lyrically. The day I found out what happened to David, all I could think about were the lyrics. I remember when I was finishing my first vocal comp – I don’t remember which track it was – and the lyrics were relatively depressing, about returning your body to the earth, your possessions, that sort of thing. Basically, it was David’s mindset in the last year, since he’d been teaching in Kuwait. I’ve never actually been so floored with lyrics on any record I’ve ever done. Pretty much every song was like that, and the lyrics really made me think. He was trying to answer the same questions that everyone has, especially in their late 20s and early 30s. I think he really hammered things home.”
Leading once again to discussion of ‘Adora Vivos’ and its ironic message:
“In that song he’s talking about Peter Steele (Type O Negative) and how everyone freaked out after he died, with everyone saying how great he was and how much they loved him. David just couldn’t understand that. He was like, ‘Why the fuck didn’t you adore him when he was here?’”
In closing, Sig reveals the one event during the recordings that’s guaranteed to keep David’s memory alive and well for him, namely the tornado that ripped through Goderich on Augut 21, 2011 and decimated a good portion of the town.
“The thunderstorm was quite significant to the Woods album,” he says. “It happened when we were in the middle of doing vocals. We saw the sky coming in, and we were working on ‘Lightning And Snow’ at the time. David was singing, it was getting really dark, and my lady was upstairs reading a book in the lounge. She happened to look out in the direction of town and thought she saw a tornado, but she didn’t say anything because there’s no way that kind of thing happens around here. We stopped recording and I shut down all the gear because insurance companies don’t cover you in the event of a lightning strike if your equipment gets fucked up. We took a break, and these fist-sized hailstones started coming down. David was freaking because we’d been working on ‘Lightning And Snow’, and we’ve got lightning, thunder and a hailstorm (laughs). It was so fucking weird. That tornado will forever remind me of David and the Woods 5 album. For me they’re completely intertwined.”
Guitarist Joel Violette has the distinction of being David’s right hand man on Grey Skies & Electric Light, a responsibility he didn’t take lightly and one he continues to honour as Woods Of Ypres’ remaining voice. They initially came together as fans of one another’s work, which led to David playing drums on Joel’s Thrawsunblat project in 2010. He recounts the events that got the ball rolling and eventually led to him writing for and recording Woods 5:
I was sending David demos of my stuff from about 2004. I originally emailed him and asked if I could buy a copy of Woods 2, which is how it started, and eventually he asked me if I’d like him to play drums on an album for me. It was like, ‘Uh… fuck yeah!’ (laughs). Our schedules finally worked out, and I think it was April or May 2009 when David recorded the drums for Thrawsunblat. It was about two weeks before they went into the studio for Woods 4. The following year they needed a lead guitarist, and the offer came: ‘Do you wanna tour North America with Woods?’ It was a no-brainer; of course I said yes.”
“I did the tour in the summer of 2010, and we were going to record what we thought was going to be Woods 5. David had written most of the song structures, and I had the offer to do the lead guitar on the album if I wanted to. I was really only a hired gun for the tour, but I wanted to stay on, and we finally ended up putting out Woods 4.5. When we did the Eastern Canada and US tour in March, that’s when we started talking seriously about Woods V because the Earache deal was signed at that point. I had a great time working with David on Woods 4.5, and I really wanted to contribute to the new material. So, I recorded some demos that he really liked, and that’s how I ended up coming to work on the album.”
“Funny enough, I discovered Woods Of Ypres within the first couple years of me getting into metal. They were one of the founding bands that I listened to, so I suppose the Woods sound is part of my style on some level.”
Regardless of the “band” tag, Woods Of Ypres was always David’s baby. Prior to the Earache deal, he did all of the behind-the-scenes administrative work, and he made all the creative decisions. The fact that Joel welcomed into the writing process as an equal contributor says a lot about David’s opinion of him.
“It was pretty crazy, actually,” Joel admits. “I was really excited to be as involved with it as I was. Obviously, the whole thing was within the scope that David had created for Woods V; he knew what he wanted the album to be. David invited me up to Sault Ste Marie to write with him, and we brainstormed on some things, but it was always David’s call in the end. I wrote demos that I thought fit into that scope, and we both had two or three song skeletons each when we got together. We planned on having 12 skeletons done within that two week period of writing, and it worked out that way with six songs each. It was very cool that David liked my output and gave them his okay.”
Joel goes on to say that making Woods V an accessible record to metal fans dimly aware or completely oblivious of Woods Of Ypres was intentional. He makes it clear that Earache Records didn’t dictate the types of songs they wanted in order to fulfill certain record deal requirements.
Regarding the simplicity of some arrangements – and the potential connection to the fact that there were only two of us in the studio – David frequently noted the difference between the Woods 5 studio experience and that of Woods 1 through 4 in that we finished everything we wanted to record with a couple days to spare. The last couple days we were just fiddling with things, rather than jamming in as much recording as we could. I think that’s noteworthy. We went in there wanting to do ten songs and a couple bonus tracks, and we ended up finishing all the material we went into the studio with. It’s all on the full release.”
“There was a bit of involvement from Earache after the fact. We sent the finished tracks to them with the proposed tracklist, and they came back with their own tracklist, which included ‘Keeper Of The Ledger’ as a bonus track rather than song #3 as we’d suggested. That’s probably the densest and lush song on Woods 5, and maybe it’s for that reason Earache didn’t want it in the heart of the album. David and I talked about that song, and we came to the conclusion it encompasses everything Woods had done before and puts it in a Woods 5 context, bringing everything full circle. But, Earache reverted to David’s tracklist for the actual release, in tribute, which puts ‘Keeper Of The Ledger’ back as the third song.”
Like Morgan, Joel will be performing a special set at one of the scheduled tribute shows, finally giving him a chance to say goodbye.
“I’ll be doing a set with Rae Amitay, the drummer who would have come with us on our European tour this month. She and I are going to a kind of piano / acoustic set of Woods songs at the Sault Ste Marie show. We both sing, so we’re going to put that together. It’ll be something special.”
In closing, Joel sheds some light on a statement he made in a press release following David’s passing that seemed to suggest Woods Of Ypres will carry on. One comment in particular – that he would “endeavour to complete what can be completed given the circumstances” – caused a certain amount of backlash and confusion, but Joel makes it clear he has no intention of trying to cash in on the Woods Of Ypres name.
“With that press release, I guess I wanted to put some hope into the whole situation somehow. Putting out a statement that said ‘Well, that’s the end of Woods Of Ypres. Seeya…’ seemed wrong. We did have a lot of cool plans for future album, but you obviously can’t write a Woods album without David. During the Woods 5 recording process I was messing around with Woods 1 songs on the keyboard, and David thought it was awesome. We talked about doing acoustic piano-based Woods songs and releasing them. That’s about the only thing I could imagine coming out under the Woods Of Ypres name. David was really stoked about the idea and we talked about it on several occasions, so I think it would be a nice tribute to him to get something like that out there. It would be a good way to cap off his legacy.”
Photos courtesy of Morgan Lander, Siegfried Meier, Joel Violette, Marie Gold and Earache Records. Used with kind permission.