Recording Digest: Church of Hed – Sandstoned written by Jerry Kranitz

Editor’s Note: Jerry Kranitz is an aficionado of spacerock and psychedelic music, as evidenced by his work with Aural Innovations for nearly two decades. He is now focused on a new book: Cassette Culture: Homemade Music and the Creative Spirit in the Pre-Internet Age chronicling the underground cassette music scene. It’s scheduled for publication in 2019 by Vinyl-on-Demand. Yeah!

Jerry recently reviewed the new Church of Hed album, Sandstoned. Here is that review along with a few questions on the underlying recording process. Check out his previous coverage of Church of Hed’s Brandenburg Heights.

Church of Hed Sandstoned Review


Church of Hed – Sandstoned. Cover photo by Dan Engelhardt.

Church of Hed is Quarkspace founding member Paul Williams’ solo project that he has immersed himself in since the mothership band ceased activities. Sandstoned is the new album and is what Williams describes as “a surrealistic window on an early 80s evening on the North Coast of Ohio. Psychedelic postcards sent forward in time.”

I’ve been following Williams’ music since first discovering Quarkspace in the mid-90s, and I’ll say right out of the chute that I think this is one of his best solo efforts. We’ve got bits of Quarkspace, the trademark Church of Hed beats and loops, a deep space inspired brand of prog rock, and an impressive sense of thematic development as well as a soundtrack vibe permeates throughout the set. The music is all Williams on an arsenal of synths, keys, drumming and loops, with guitar and bass assistance from Quarkspace alum Stan Lyon on five of the ten tracks.

The set opens with the title track, which combines floating space ambience, Berlin school electronica, cinematic classical prog and, of course, the electro beats that characterize all things Church of Hed. This is followed by Synth Cadence, a short drum and robotic grooves ditty. We then launch into intensely majestic space-symphonic prog territory with 1AM at the Dean Road Bridge, which blends a fully orchestrated sound with shades of Quarkspace. Dig that looming Mellotron sound, piano, pounding timpani, and eerie effects.

We veer back into the cool grooving beats, piano and flowing streams of space synth action on Quarrydosing, before soaring back to Berlin (ed: Amherst?) with 2AM at Crownhill Cemetery, with its syncopations and cosmically haunting magic carpet ride drift. Williams injects lots of fun effects but also drones that create a tension between meditative space and anguished intensity. Field recordings conjure up imagery of someone perhaps prowling the cemetery in the wee hours of the morning.

I like the way the music zips between and combines heavy prog, space electronica and beats/loops. Dark Matter Sandstone has a flowing space melody that sails along with off-kilter dance grooves. Wallace Lane is another track with an aura of the old Quarkspace sound. But it’s a bit different due to the clattering percussive ensemble that crashes steadily along with a playful electronic melody. Cool and strange contrasts!

Most of the tracks are in the 2-5 minute range, but at nearly 11 minutes, 3AM at Hole in the Wall is by far the longest and is very much like an old Quarkspace epic. I love how the music dovetails between heavily majestic and theme developing prog rock and spacey meditative drift. The Prodigal Swanson (Jay Swanson was Quarkspace’s keyboardist) is a brief yet intensely frantic piece. And Sandstoned No. 2 closes the album with the most pounding dance floor grooves of the set, and an old sci-fi television soundtrack theme vibe.

I keep saying this but I’ll summarize by emphasizing that there’s a lot going on throughout this album, bringing together oddly contrasting elements that mesh, morph and blend beautifully. Williams is deep into heavy classic prog territory, yet there are plenty of seriously spacey elements, and it’s all very soundtrack/cinematic feeling throughout. Bravo Paul!

Interview with Church of Hed’s Paul Williams

JK: Describe the inspiration around the album and its title, Sandstoned. You mentioned something about a night out along the North Coast in the 1980s.

Yes. Sandstoned is essentially a collection of surrealistic postcards chronicling a weekend up in my home environs back in the day. Some of the places in the song titles should be familiar to many folks along that stretch of Northern Ohio’s Lake Erie coast. It’s a sufficiently vague concept that helped me tie together the album.

Musically, things are catchier for the most part. For some tracks, I focused more on beat creation, using the Arturia DrumBrute, Teenage Engineering PO-12, and other devices/software. In fact, the album started off even more beat-oriented. The three “AM” pieces were composed to provide more balance.

JK: On Brandenburg Heights, you only used hardware instruments during the recording. The Sandstoned gear list includes software synths and such. Why the change in approach?

Brandenburg Heights is the outlier in this case. For most albums I typically use a mixture of hardware and software gear. Brandenburg Heights Part 1 took form as a 20 minute Berlin School improvisation using a variety of hardware synced together. I took that as a sign to make the album software free other than using Pro Tools for recording.

There are just too many great synths available for the desktop and iOS platforms to restrict yourself to a hardware-only approach. Although, nothing beats the tactile feel of a Moog synth.

JK: You mentioned the iOS platform. Did you use the iPhone or iPad?

The iPad makes an appearance on a few tracks. The excellent SynthScaper provides the ambient vibe of the Lake Erie shore you hear during the title track. I also used Moog’s otherworldly Animoog, Model 15, and Model D apps, in addition to the Arturia iMini. Simply top notch sound from all.

The field music sounds you described from the Crownhill Cemetery piece involved a granular synth app called Borderlands. I wanted to use my own recordings of voices talking about the cemetery, but the mic on my iPad isn’t working. I don’t have an audio interface for it, so I ended up using some of the included sample libraries from the app. They worked great. Granular synthesis is quite cool.

Some iOS musicians use their iPad as a full DAW, creating excellent sounding productions while mobile. Since, I’ve got Pro Tools (soon to be Ableton Live) and a decently-appointed studio, I prefer to keep my recording on the PC and use the iPad as a sound source and a beatmaker. When a synth app takes advantage of a touchscreen interface, magic happens.

Additionally, a few top notch desktop synths and effects made an impact. PolyM is a great model of the Polymoog, providing creepy sonics throughout the album. Objeq Delay is used to great effect on the beat of Sandstoned No. 2. Crownhill Cemetery features Rob Papen’s Predator 2 on the arpeggiation.

Of course, I run anything from the iPad or PC through analog delays and other effects when recording. This helps them fit better in the mix. Always remember delay is the antidote for anger.

JK: As I’ve noticed in the past with Church of Hed, you seem to easily merge different styles of music into something unique. Does it come naturally?

Yes. I listen to and am influenced by so many different musical forms, and that definitely gets reflected in Church of Hed. Too many bands doing work in niche genres seem to focus on regurgitating stylistic markers, which is fine. Fans of these niches tend to appreciate it.

I am on a quest for innovative sounds and song structures, but am always trying to find a good melody or riff. The latter is ultimately the most important. Genre labels are unfortunately more of a marketing term than anything, which adds to the hassle of self promotion.

JK: It’s nice to see Stan Lyon as a guest on Sandstoned. The most recent Church of Hed albums before the new album were truly “solo” projects.

Indeed. Dink reached out last year and came down for a weekend to work on Sandstoned tracks. He provided some energetic bass lines, in addition to freakier bits using his eBow on bass and guitar. It definitely added to the sonic scope of the album.

He also recorded with me a few weeks ago. We worked on some future Church of Hed albums, as well as another venerable project we’ll keep nameless for now (well, at least until the end of the interview). He hopes to come down at least twice a year.

Darren Gough from Quarkspace is expected later this summer. Hopefully he is able to make it – the family man abides. Chet is still in California, and we still haven’t been able to get hold of Jay.

JK: Speaking of Jay, I assume he’s the Prodigal Swanson? Why that track, since the playing doesn’t really sound like him?

Yes, Jay is that Prodigal Swanson. We all miss him and hope he is doing well. Darren and I regularly reach out to him to no avail. We aren’t giving up! (Sorry Jay!)

People forget Jay is an incandescent synth lead player. He tends to be remembered for his piano playing, but he slays on lead, especially on Drop and Spacefolds 7 after Dave Wexler left. There was more space to solo, since Stan takes an ambient approach on guitar, and many of the leads from those albums that get attributed to Stan are really Jay.

The Prodigal Swanson track is my attempted “tribute” to his synth lead skills. I heard a rumor he’s more fluid than Jeff Beck.

JK: What’s coming up for Church of Hed? Are there any projects to report?

I am working on The Father Road, the sequel to Rivers of Asphalt, slated for release sometime next year – hopefully. Stan is planning on playing bass for most of it, so I need to put together demos of the pieces he isn’t on currently. We’ve recorded a few of the motifs used throughout this transcontinental journey along the Lincoln Highway.

After that is Cycle, which is the “seasonal” larger work I’ve been threatening for a while. The Autumn Shrine and Cold White Universe title tracks are being enhanced and two new pieces for spring and summer are in the works. I know a musical project based on the seasons is a pretty big cliché, but so what. I can’t help what comes out. It’s gonna be cool!

The Fourth Hour is another project in the pipeline. It features a more psychedelic Berlin School style, with a lot of improv in that loop-based structure. Stan is helping with that one as well.

I may revisit the unreleased Quarkspace album as well; putting it out in its current unfinished form. The instrumentals and improvs have always been complete; the hangup always involved the vocal songs. This would be a digital only release. I make no promises that it gets released, as Church of Hed remains the priority, short of Chet, Jay, and Darren showing up on my doorstep together!

Nevertheless, we stay busy! Thanks for your questions and your kind words on Sandstoned. Off to the next project!